Children may outgrow their tennis shoes and their Barbie dolls, their playhouses and their Tonka trucks, but leading manufacturers in pediatric mobility
by MARJORY GARRISON
July 1, 2003

Children may outgrow their tennis shoes and their Barbie dolls,
their playhouses and their Tonka trucks, but leading manufacturers
in pediatric mobility are making sure they won't outgrow their
wheelchairs or scooters — at least not anytime soon.

Manufacturers are responding to the increasing number of
children who are diagnosed with special mobility needs at an early
age by designing mobility products that will last as a child grows
and develops. But as parents come to mobility providers with
increasingly younger children in need, this ambitious goal isn't
easy to achieve.

“You used to wait until a child was four, five or six
years old. Now, if you have the diagnosis, you can start as early
as 12 to 18 months,” says Julianna Arva, pediatric product
specialist for Permobil, Lebanon, Tenn. “A really strong
trend lately [is] the importance of early independent mobility,
starting as early as possible.”

Attention to early independent mobility for children drives
product development and innovation in today's pediatric mobility
market. “It's more and more important to start children out
right away on a good piece of equipment. It really makes a
difference in their future,” says Jackie Kaufenberg,
marketing manager for Altimate Medical, Morton, Minn. Early
intervention is the key, she believes.

With this in mind, new pediatric mobility products offer parents
more than a standard lightweight wheelchair for their child.
“The push is always for improved positioning and lighter
weight that's durable,” points out Merv Watkins, president of
Torrance, Calif.-based Convad. “Parents need
convenience.”

Manufacturers of pediatric mobility products have tried always
to balance the needs of the child, who uses the device, with those
of the parent or caregiver, who often is charged with transporting
it. “There's an effort to merge the developmental needs of
the child with the convenience needs of the caregiver. How easily
does it fold? How easily can I transport this?” says Sara
Oxton, rehab market manager for Minneapolis-based Otto Bock Health
Care. “If the caregiver can't use [the device] with some
degree of ease, it won't be used, and for us that means the child
stays home. We make our products to address what might seem like
conflicting needs.”

These dual needs require manufacturers to design lightweight,
transportable wheelchairs and strollers that also feature a range
of adjustments to accommodate growth. “We concentrate heavily
on compact folding so parents can close and open the chair —
picking it up and throwing it in the back of the car —
without messing with the adjustments,” Watkins says.

Caregivers also are concerned about the safety of pediatric
mobility devices. “Any stroller a parent or caregiver will
consider needs to be crash-test worthy,” Oxton notes.

The current industry standard is a mobility device that's been
crash-tested on a school bus simulating a forward crash. “In
the last two years this standard has really taken hold,”
Oxton says. “The challenge as a manufacturer is getting truly
universal standards for a global audience.”

Therapists, parents and caregivers are more sophisticated and
more pragmatic about pediatric mobility today, experts say. Tired
of returning to a dealer year after year for a new chair or
stroller to meet the changing needs of their developing children,
parents are doing the research to find devices that adjust to
address those changes from the outset. “[Parents are]
learning what works long-term and what doesn't, and they're making
product choices based on long-term function and benefits to the
user,” says Larry Mulholland, president of Mulholland
Positioning Systems, Santa Paula, Calif.

The focus on building a device that a child won't outgrow comes
into play in many elements of a product's design. With a pediatric
wheelchair this might include size, postural controls, contour and
maneuverability, among others. “Growth is a huge factor
[requiring] more adjustments so you don't have to purchase another
product in five or six years,” Kaufenberg explains.

The challenges of meeting a caregiver's needs have not
distracted industry leaders from the child who will be using the
mobility device. Creating a product that serves a child's needs as
well as addressing his or her evolving style or taste is also
important in the pediatric mobility market, experts say. “We
look at a product for a child. It's not about taking an
adult product and making it smaller,” Kaufenberg says.
“There are different needs.”

The challenge for manufacturers is to do more than simply shrink
an adult chair or stroller down to child-size — a practice
experts say was common among manual wheelchair manufacturers in the
past. Sales of pediatric mobility devices depend on appealing
designs that keep a child's personality in mind. Similar to
bicycles and roller blades, television shows and favorite toys,
“in a large sense this is a fad market,” says
Mulholland. “It's a design-driven market: The more appealing
the design is, the more it sells.”

This is especially true among pediatric mobility buyers, because
self-image can be crucial for a child's development. A wheelchair's
style can reflect a child's personality, for example. Colorful
buttons, kid-friendly joysticks and other bells and whistles can
serve specific mobility functions while at the same time
contributing to an overall look.

“Parents like to see things that are ‘not clinical
looking,’” Oxton says. “Specifically with
strollers, the more aesthetically appealing it is, the more readily
it will be embraced.”

Manufacturers explain that parents want their children to enjoy
their surroundings without being perceived as having special
needs.

“We're striving to make it so it's not just a shrunken
adult chair, so the child is on peer level in an aesthetically
appealing product that makes him or her king of the
classroom,” Kaufenberg says, “but we have a ways to
go.”