Governor Polis of Colorado just signed the first Right to Repair bill to pass in the US since 2012: Now, powered wheelchair users in Colorado have the right to access parts, information, and software for their chairs. This signing is a huge victory for wheelchair users and disability advocates in Colorado. And it’s a major advancement for the Right to Repair movement around the world.
Wait Times of 7+ Weeks Left Wheelchair Users Stuck
Repair isn’t just for your car or cellphone. Repair can restore the quality of life for those in need of mobility aids. US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) found that 62% of Colorado wheelchair users waited a month or more for repairs, on average—and 40% reported waiting 7 or more weeks on average. Needing repair is very common, with 93% of owners reporting they needed repairs in the last year. This kind of wait time is unconscionable, especially when it is caused by artificial scarcity. The shortage of technicians is no accident: Powered wheelchair company Numotion has maintained a very deliberate monopoly on repair, refusing to sell parts or enable independent repairers to fix chairs.
We’ve seen similar repair monopolies everywhere from video game consoles to cell phones to tractors. But for many wheelchair users, waiting for service means being stuck—literally—in ways that can limit their quality of life dramatically.
One wheelchair user told PIRG about a bad experience with a recent flat tire. Numotion quoted a wait time of 6-8 weeks and a cost of $300 to Medicare. Ordinarily, a new inner tube, part only, would cost about $6 and could be installed without expert training. Wheelchair users should be able to buy parts to install themselves, or hire independent technicians to do the repair work for them—and luckily, Colorado finally agrees. This bill should decrease wait times, bring down costs of repair, and improve the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Coloradans with mobility disabilities.
Overcoming Specious Arguments
Last year, Colorado tried a broader digital Right to Repair bill. Wheelchair advocates testified in support of that bill—in ways that Matthew Gault for Vice called “riveting” and “horrifying.” Despite that testimony, legislators declined to pass the bill, saying it raised too many broad questions, citing manufacturers’ arguments that have been debunked by the FTC.
The powered wheelchair repair bill faced many of the same tired arguments that manufacturers trot out for other industries: They feared they’d be liable for faulty repairs they didn’t perform, even though courts have made clear that they wouldn’t be. They insisted they needed to certify anyone doing repairs on their stuff, even though analysis demonstrated that most wheelchair repairs require minimal technical skill.
Those arguments are finally beginning to fall flat.
This year, Colorado Right to Repair advocates refocused around wheelchairs specifically, with the support of a new bill sponsor, Representative David Ortiz. Representative Ortiz is himself a wheelchair user, after a helicopter crash in Afghanistan left him partially paralyzed from the waist down. His personal experience with the frustrations of repair restrictions made him a particularly powerful champion of the bill.
This bill’s success proves that when lawmakers can recognize the harm of limited repair, manufacturers’ concerns can be overcome. It’s an uphill battle to teach them to recognize that harm, but the benefit to consumers and the independent repair market is more than worth it.
Repair guides and support for a wide range of wheelchairs.View Device
Rolling This Victory Forward
Colorado’s victory is just the beginning of securing a worldwide legally protected Right to Repair. As we read the repair horror stories collected by PIRG, we wish we could extend the benefit of repair services to all 3 million wheelchair users in the US (and the 131 million users worldwide).
While everyone should have the right to repair every thing, everywhere, sometimes the big picture sell is tough. While the same problems are faced by so many people across so many industries, it could be that toe holds like this Colorado bill are what’s needed to bust repair monopolies wide open. A piecemeal fight can be a long one, but each victory makes the next one easier.
And as 2022 state legislative sessions come to a close across the country, there’s another message for advocates here: The work we’ve done this year won’t be forgotten. States with legislators who’ve heard these arguments will remember them in years to come. And if we can find the right approach—the right bill, at the right time, with the right stories—change can happen.
Bills are still under consideration in New York, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Massachusetts. There’s a broad House hearing on Right to Repair coming up in the middle of next month.
Corporate lobbyists are loud. They’ve got money and time and the kind of drive that only being paid full-time to fight an issue can give you. But we’re confident that given enough time, the common sense of repair will win: People want to fix their stuff. Manufacturer restrictions shouldn’t get in our way.