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.”