As we prepare for the annual National Conference and Exhibition on Transporting Students with Disabilities, scheduled March 4-8 in Orlando, Fla., a major manufacturer of a full line of wheelchairs is introducing versions of its pediatric line that are designed to comply with wheelchair tiedown and restraint standards for vehicular transportation. Admittedly, it's a small step by one manufacturer, but it's in the right direction. For years the pupil transportation industry has been forced to turn a blind eye toward wheelchair makers' warnings as it tried in good faith to comply with federal special-education laws. It's been a gamble, because wheelchair manufacturers have repeatedly told users that their products are not to be used for vehicular transportation. The situation has, in effect, put bus operators of all kinds, including school districts and transit agencies, smack in the middle of federal mandates about equal access to education on the one side and the threat of a liability suit on the other. School districts and transit systems simply crossed their fingers, hoping that users and parents would understand their predicament. Hindered by lack of standards
The wheelchair manufacturers' refusal to make a transportable chair was somewhat understandable. For years, there simply were no standard practices on how to transport wheelchair users. That situation is changing, however. In the next few months, the Subcommittee on Wheelchairs and Transportation (SOWHAT), working under the umbrella of the Rehabilitation Engineering Society of North America (RESNA) and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), is expected to adopt voluntary design and performance standards for transportable wheelchairs of all types. The project has been in the works for more than three years, but has been impeded by financial shortfalls. Thankfully, these have not stopped the committee from pursuing its objectives. Once the new standards are adopted, the school transportation industry hopes wheelchair companies take the initiative to start designing and manufacturing new lines of transportable wheelchairs. Part of the challenge has been creating standards that will not inflate the price of the wheelchairs beyond the reach of the average user. Another challenge will be to inform the disabled community that transportable wheelchairs are available. Already up and running are voluntary wheelchair tiedown and restraint standards known as J2249. These standards are the product of committees affiliated with ANSI and the Society of Automotive Engineers. This, in turn, has allowed Sunrise Medical to design its "Quickie" and "Zippie" models of pediatric chairs so that they can accommodate J2249-compliant tie-down systems. These include the most widely available systems, including those made by Q'Straint and Kinedyne. A good start, but. . .
These are welcome first steps, but they are only the beginning. More needs to be done with chairs for older children and adults. Perhaps most importantly, however, school districts and contractors must make sure that their drivers and attendants are fully versed in the standards and proper use of these new products. The U.S. pupil transportation industry has always stood for the highest degree of safe transportation possible, but it has a lot to be proud of on this particular aspect of safety. Not only can it claim leadership on this issue in this country, it can also legitimately boast of its vanguard position to the rest of the world.