11. THE PHYSICALLY DISABLED ARE AMERICA'S MOST CAPTIVE
An estimated half million physically disabled Americans are totally
dependent on wheelchairs whose stagnant design and exorbitant prices
have been set by one multinational corporation and reinforced by decades
of government policy. The company is the Los Angeles-based Everest &
Jennings (E & J), the world's largest wheelchair manufacturer.
Wheelchair design today, unlike the technology of improved medical
treatment, is basically the same as it was in 1935 -- the result of
the history of the industry and its profitable relations with the U.S.
The Veterans Administration, by being the biggest single customer for
wheelchairs and by originally establishing standards and specifications
to fit the typical E & J chair, has helped this company to perpetuate
its obsolete design, unreliable maintenance, exorbitant purchase and
repair costs, and dominance of the industry. E & J is now a multinational
operating in Germany, England, Canada, and Mexico. Competitors have
had to imitate E & J to mine the rich V.A. market.
Since more than 50% of all wheelchairs are bought partially with Federal
and State funds, taxpayers, as well as the disabled, have had to bear
the burden of inflated prices.
Both manual and power chairs need repairs constantly which can take
months. This further benefits the industry since most users must buy
or rent a second chair to be mobile during repairs. E & J profits
more than 100% on many parts, even for simple parts available on the
open market. Nevertheless, most sales agencies routinely order from
E & J.
Under pressure, the Veterans Administration is finally trying to open
the field to innovation and lower prices but this may not happen since
the Bureau of Medical Devices of the Food and Drug Administration has
created a policy that classifies wheelchairs the same as tongue depressors
-- a category that has no standards.
After amassing a large anti-trust case against E & J, the Justice
Department backed off. As a result, activist organizations of wheelchair
users filed class action suits, still in litigation, which make the
same claims of monopoly violations against E & J.
Meanwhile, a tragic "victim-as-culprit" attitude prevails
-- handicapped people are accused of not using their chairs correctly
and of not considering the cost to society in making buildings accessible
The lack of media coverage to America's most captive consumers qualifies
this story for nomination as one of the "best censored" stories
The Progressive, March, 1979, "The Most Captive Consumers,"
by Betty Medsger; National Catholic Reporter, Mar. 30, 1979; and Wall
Street Journal, Feb. 7, 1979.