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Saturday, February 10, 2018

Using a New Wheelchair is a Long Learning Process

I expected my old wheelchair destroyed by United airlines to last the rest of my life. Forced to adapt to a new wheelchair since mid December only now am I beginning to feel comfortable and secure. Initially, I was worried about falling and in pain by the end of the day. Finding the correct seating position was and remains a challenge. My old chair was very long--elongated was the fashion long ago. Long ago, the idea was to prevent muscle contracture by having a long down slope angle at the front to of the wheelchair. My rear wheels on the old wheelchair were wider and the front wheels were large by modern day standards (rear 24 1 3/4 and front were 8 1/2). All wheels were pneumatic. This gave me a soft ride and with my weight spread out I could navigate any terrain and up to a foot in snow. This was important to me in large part because my son was an outdoorsy kid and we spent a lot of time camping and kayaking. The back of my old wheelchair did not fold down and the frame could not be adjusted in any way. It was an elegant simple design and was rugged in the extreme.

My new wheelchair is sleek and uses the latest technology and materials available--most notably a carbon fiber frame. It is amazingly light yet feels a rigid as my old wheelchair. Modern day wheelchair manufacturing is all about component pieces that allow a great deal of adjustability. Wheelchair manufacturers claim they offer the best of two worlds. Great flexibility and rigid frame experience. I think this is a load of crap. Contemporary wheelchairs are adjustable because the professionals charged with selecting the right fit and size often make mistakes. Wheelchair sitting clinics have incredibly long waiting lists and providing a properly fitting wheelchair is far more complex than one would think. Indeed, it is a rarity when I see a manual wheelchair user sitting properly in a correctly fitted wheelchair. It does not help that many people buy wheelchairs online from discount houses such as Bike-on. I am not opposed to buying a wheelchair this way. One can save a fortune if they know exactly what they need.

Seating specialists are a mixed bag--some are great at their jobs while others are not competent. The range in quality even within a single company can be significant. I was fortunate in that I dealt with a competent seating specialist. Many are not so lucky and far too many people end up getting a wheelchair that is less than ideal and ill fitting. An ill fitting wheelchair is at best useless and at worst a significant danger to one's life and well being. Getting the perfect wheelchair fit is a risky and expensive proposition. Far too many people end up with a pink elephant--a wheelchair they cannot use and cannot be returned. The resale value is low. In short, you better get it right the first time or thousands of dollars will have been wasted.

I selected an Apex carbon fiber frame rigid wheelchair. I chose this over the TiLite line of wheelchairs. Based on my observations, the TiLite line of wheelchairs is the go to product line for most men who are paralyzed. These wheelchairs did not appeal. While the design was acceptable the TiLite wheelchairs are not built to last. Under rigorous use an aluminum frame TiLite can be expected to last two to five years (a titanium frame will last longer but significantly raise the price and would not be covered by most health insurance companies). The TiLite wheelchairs feels cheap to me. So why does the TiLite line of wheelchairs abound? They meet insurance industry price points. The other wheelchair I considered was the Panthera X. It is by far the lightest wheelchair manufactured in the world (it weighs under 5 pounds). It is also the most expensive manual wheelchair made. It is a gorgeous wheelchair. It also has Panthera branding all over the shiny carbon frame. Panthera has virtually no presence in North America. It is an exotic wheelchair for the 1%. It took me about two minutes to dismiss the Panthera. Despite its light weight and glossy carbon fiber frame with Panthera written all over it the wheelchair is wildly impractical. The Panthera will be the first wheelchair stolen (and yes wheelchairs are stolen all the time). Forget about getting spare parts. Forget about working on the wheelchair in the event a part fails--it has a host of proprietary parts. I could never permit such a wheelchair in the cargo hold of an airplane. Do I really want to put a $10,000+ impossible to insure wheelchair in the belly of a plane knowing that airlines break thousands of wheelchairs a year? Not a chance.

I went with the Apex wheelchair made by Motion Composites despite the fact I am wary of this company. They are based in Quebec and are the fastest growing wheelchair company in North America. I was concerned such explosive growth could lead to quality control problems. The Apex wheelchair frame weighs 9.2 pounds. It has integrated impact guards, front bumpers, and a rigidizing system that makes the wheelchair feel rock sold. Like other wheelchairs, it is fully modular and adjustable. The back angle, seat to floor height, upholstery, and more can be adjusted. In addition, it has laser etched markings that allow one to adjust key components so that they are level without measuring. It even has dual bubble levels in the front wheel housing to insure the ideal adjustment.  Each screw and allen wrench is printed with its size making it user friendly. Essentially, each chair given its adjustability, is a one off custom fit for the individual user.

Here are some photographs of the Apex from images available on line. Below the entire wheelchair. Note the amount of branding is not over the top. In the center back bar is the word Apex. Built in the upholstery is the Motion Composites logo, a feather in a circle at the top of the upholstery.

Below is the bubble level in front wheel assembly and laser etched markings at rear axle. 

Below illustrates how the seat to floor height can be changed as well as rear wheel position ability to mover forwards or backwards. One's weight should be directly on the rear axle. 

Below is the folding back mechanism. This feature is critically important and will be subjected to the most intense pressure from daily use. 

There are a few things I do not like about the wheelchair. The back creaks and does not feel as rigid as I had hoped. However, the benefits of the folding back are significant. The frame takes up little space in a car. The backbar above with the word Apex on it makes the frame easy to lift. The other thing I dislike are the push rims. The carbon fiber frame does not get cold nor does the upholstery. Only the push aluminum spinergy push rim gets cold. I went to downtown Denver yesterday and in my 20 minute wait for the train the rims got quite cold. The major draw back to date is transferring from the wheelchair into a car is awkward. I am sure over time I will be accustom to the transfer. I also do not like how the back upright adjusts (it can go from 15 to 18 inches). To move the back upright requires an odd tool that reminds me of Ikea furniture. 

I have no idea why this special tool about 10 inches long is required. I do know adjusting the back uprights is awkward. To me, this is a design error. Regardless, I am quite please with the fit and feel of the wheelchair. I get a sense the founders of Motion Composites saw a market niche for affordable adjustable light weight wheelchairs. Motion Composites released their first wheelchair in 2008 and as such are new to the wheelchair industry. The growth rate of Motion Composites is remarkable. Between 2008 and 2013 sales grew 2241% I hope the founders are making a healthy profit. The better they do the more secure I will feel. There is nothing worse than the feeling I had when United Airlines broke my wheelchair and I knew the frame could never be replaced. This brings up my overwhelming concern. When carbon fiber fails it is usually a catastrophic failure. Catastrophic failure and wheelchairs are words that should ever be in the same sentence. If this wheelchair fails my life comes to an immediate and sudden stop. I try to ignore this harsh reality. In the meantime, I have a serious case of new wheelchair enthusiasm. I clean my wheelchair every day. I mourn the few nicks on the wheelchair rims and front forks. 


Patrick said...

I like this chair too. how has it held up? how do you rate the durability of the frame vs a metal frame? thx!

william Peace said...

Less than a year old I cannot feel any difference from day one use. I am tough on a wheelchair, likely moving many miles daily over all sorts of terrain and in all sorts of weather. It has been rock solid. Very happy you asked this question. I will put up a new post in the coming months about its durability at the one year mark.

Gretta said...

Thanks for this review! My almost 17 yr old son with ataxia has outgrown his previous wheelchair (a TiLite) and is considering options. The Apex is one that has been suggested to us. While I like the idea of an adjustable chair, I am a bit hesitant because of the adjustable parts - more to break down and need adjusting/fixing by professionals. Do you find the adjustable parts well-made and solid? Have you been able to make adjustments yourself? I agree with you that most wheelchair users are poorly seated and would benefit from competent assessment and recommendations as well as the ability to make small adjustments by themselves if able. Also, have you found the Apex to be as versatile in outdoor environments as you would like? Thanks!

william Peace said...


I am delighted with my carbon fiber framed Apex wheelchair from the Canadian company Motion Composites. To answer your questions: I believe the Apex is superior to any TiLite wheelchair. TiLite hardware is cheap and the wheelchairs are not as rigid as I desire. The Apex in contrast has superior hardware and at this early stage is holding up to rigorous use. The folding back is solid and the ability to adjust rear wheels and back angle is desirable if one developed skin woes. As for repairs, it is by far the easiest wheelchair to work on. You can order a little tool kit with the wheelchair and that is worth its weight in gold. The only wild card is longevity. No idea how long the carbon fiber frame will last. In short, I give the Apex my highest recommendation