On May 19, the ANSI/RESNA standard for transportable wheelchairs (WC-19) received final approval. More than five years in the making, the standard specifies general design requirements, test procedures and performance requirements for wheelchairs that may be used in a wide range of transportation modes, including school buses, transit buses, over-the-road coaches and personally licensed vehicles. The guiding force behind the standard was the Subcommittee on Wheelchairs and Transportation (SOWHAT). Two subcommittee members — Bette Cotzin (a physical therapist at Washtenaw Intermediate School District in Ann Arbor, Mich.) and Judith Marks (an occupational therapist at the Washtenaw school district) — discussed the impact of the standard with SBF.
SCHOOL BUS FLEET: Do you think the WC-19 standard will have a significant impact on passenger safety?
Bette Cotzin/Judith Marks: Yes. For many years, many major wheelchair manufacturers have been reluctant to manufacture wheelchairs that dealt with issues of transportation because there was no standard to which they could design the products. This voluntary standard provides, for the first time, pass/fail tests for wheelchairs. At this time, the manufacturers are dealing primarily with pediatric clients, but we are hopeful that adult model wheelchairs will soon be included in the research and development efforts. If the industry sees a market for transportable wheelchairs, manufacturers will continue to make an effort to design and improve them.
SBF: Looking at wheelchair transportation safety today, what are the greatest potential dangers to wheelchair riders?
Cotzin/Marks: In our experience, one of the greatest problems is improper application of occupant restraint systems to wheelchair passengers. WC-19 improves not only the safety of the occupant in a forward crash situation, but also decreases the likelihood of improper use of restraint systems because the tiedown sites are clearly marked and accessible. In addition, with the future standardization of the attachment point of the shoulder belt to the on-board lap belt, there will be less chance of improper use because all occupant restraint systems will operate in the same fashion.
SBF: From your experience, are parents likely to replace their children’s existing wheelchairs with a transport model? And will the extra cost ($100 to $300) deter anyone from buying a chair with the transport option?
Cotzin/Marks: While the transportable chairs are still quite new, we have certainly seen a willingness in Michigan to acquire them. This demand should increase as insurance companies, physicians, therapists, transportation staff, wheelchair users and family members learn to understand the safety implications of WC-19-compliant chairs. Of course, decisions about wheelchair selection should continue to be based on the needs of the individual user and should be a team effort.
SBF: As you know, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is addressing the safety of ambulatory students on school buses with its ongoing study on the “next generation of occupant protection.” What can or should be done to improve the safety of wheelchair passengers on school buses?
Cotzin/Marks: The WC-19 standard is an important first step in the process of improving safety for those who use wheelchairs in public and private transit. It is important to continue to promote a team approach to problem-solving. The issues involved in transporting students with disabilities are often very complex, and professionals working together will provide a better understanding of the needs of the individual.
Bette Cotzin is a physical therapist and Judith Marks is an occupational therapist. They both work for Washtenaw Intermediate School District in Ann Arbor, Mich.