Are you a wheelchair user? Do you experience back or neck pain? If so, you’re not alone. Today I listened to a Great Lakes ADA Center webinar on Surface Roughness and Rollability. I was surprised to learn that wheelchair users are twice as likely as the general population to suffer back and neck pain. In fact, 60% of wheelchair users report such soreness. Some of this discomfort may be attributed to vibrations caused by rolling over uneven pathways.
Uneven pathways are bad all around. Presenter Jon Pearlman shared that $30 billion is annually spent on medical costs associated with falls. The elderly population is especially susceptible to tripping. Falls also are the most common cause of traumatic brain injuries. If wheelchairs – and especially scooters – go over particularly uneven pathways, people sitting in them may fall out. Bad, bad, bad!
Dr. Pearlman and his team discovered that, regardless of the wheelchair brand/model, vibrations measured in wheelchair seats that are driven over pathways fall either within or above the vibration caution zone delineated by OSHA. So how do we minimize this danger?
Unfortunately, DME companies have not worked to resolve the problem. Studies reveal that wheelchair cushions actually amplify vibrations into the spinal column of the wheelchair user. Suspension systems are not sufficient, either. However, to create an adequate suspension system for the level of vibration typically experienced by a wheelchair user, the wheelchair would likely become unwieldy.
The solution, then, appears to lie in the proper design of pathways themselves. Surprisingly, Dr. Pearlman reports that some paving stones create smoother pathways than poured concrete. The pattern and bevel of the paver stones are determinative of the vibrations wheelchair users will experience. Municipalities, which are typically responsible for creating pedestrian paths, should take heed of Dr. Pearlman’s data when planning new projects.
Interestingly, the US Access Board funded a portion of Dr. Pearlman’s research. My hope, as a cobblestone-hating wheelchair user, is that the Access Board will develop standards requiring minimum smoothness.