There's little doubt that advancing technology will continue to mean new options for those in need of mobility equipment and residential surroundings

There's little doubt that advancing technology will continue to
mean new options for those in need of mobility equipment and
residential surroundings that promote an independent lifestyle.

But the existence of new options, in and of itself, doesn't
necessarily mean that end users will either know what they are or
which choices are the most appropriate for a given situation. To
make optimum choices, consumers need the kind of education and
expertise that home medical equipment manufacturers and dealers are
well-equipped to provide.

This educational process, according to experts, is still a work
in progress.

“The industry is not as sophisticated as it should be in
dealing with the end user,” says Don Newland, marketing
manager for Brampton, Ontario-based Concord Elevator. Concord
makes, among other products, incline wheelchair lifts and stair

“The technology of [HME] products is great, but we as an
industry need to be communicating that to the end user,” he
adds. “Fortunately, more and more folks in our industry are
starting to do things with education.”

Education, he believes, is critical, because in many instances
the need — such as injury or disease — for an adaptable
home occurs without warning and “so much is thrust on the end
user so suddenly.”

Newland says Concord works with its approximately 70 dealers to
disseminate product information to end users in a variety of ways.
This process could be as basic as placing literature in the waiting
rooms of occupational and physical therapists. The literature
addresses such topics as the comparison of using a lift versus a
ramp for residential access.

The company also encourages its dealers to hold an open house
for their customers. As part of the proceedings, Concord will send
its “ambassador at large” Skip Wilkens, a noted
wheelchair athlete, to speak to both dealers and consumers.

Often, a knowledgeable and experienced dealer is the best way
for an HME manufacturer to spread the word to the end user about
its products. Such is the case with Gloucester, Va.-based
Accessible Environments, dealer for Otto Bock Health Care, which
makes a line of bath safety products.

Earl Weis, who founded Accessible Environments three decades
ago, consults with customers on their universal design needs and
then recommends solutions. Perhaps his most important credential is
a degree in practical knowledge.

“Most of my advice for customers is based on personal
experience that I've gained from being in this field for many
years,” he explains. “The cases we see vary
considerably as to the type of disability and its severity. We try
to provide solutions that suit individual needs.”

(Another sign of today's rapidly changing, high-tech times is
that customers can find Weis' dealership on the Internet, but
nowhere else. He closed down his showroom last year, finding it
more cost-effective to do business solely through an online

While the practice of spreading the word about universal design
and its component products is still in the beginning stages, there
are indications the public in general is getting to know more about
the subject and, in some instances, driving industry trends.

For example, says Karen Lundquist, marketing communications
director for Otto Bock, one of the attractions at a Minnesota home
builders' trade show last fall was a model accessible home. The
model showcased a variety of mobility products and had features
such as thresholds that were flush to the floor, wider-than-normal
doorways and hallways, and wheel space under kitchen cabinets.

Sue Jotblad, product manager for patient lifts for Longmont,
Colo.-based Sunrise Medical, points out that because of aging
trends in the general population, the public at large is becoming
increasingly aware of one of the most fundamental components of an
adaptable home: grab bars.

“With elderly needs becoming more and more common, the
general population is getting used to seeing grab bars,” she
explains. Jotblad says Sunrise provides educational information to
end users in the form of a product video that is distributed
through its dealers.

Otto Bock's Lundquist feels the trend of adaptable housing
components becoming more familiar to the population at large is
being driven by aging baby boomers.

“These are people who don't want to make drastic changes
in their lifestyle and who want to stay in their existing home, so
they are willing to make those changes necessary to have a living
environment that meets their evolving needs,” she

While industry experts say that the majority of universal design
situations involve retrofitting an existing home, they also point
out that an increasing number of new homes are being built with
future adaptations in mind, even if the residents are young.

One of the most popular mobility additions to any home these
days is an elevator or, in some cases, just the shaft, according to
Pamela Bennett, installation manager for Edmonton, Alberta-based
Ram Manufacturing, a large maker of elevators and patient lifts.
She says that the trend in Canada is to include an elevator shaft
in much of the country's new residential construction.

“People who are older are having elevators installed in
their homes in greater numbers so they can stay in their original
home,” Bennett explains. “But even younger people
building a new home are building an elevator shaft that they use as
a closet now [that] can be converted to an elevator so they can
stay in their homes when they get older.”

Back in the U.S., home improvement giant Home Depot has become
involved in the universal design market, although currently on a
limited basis, according to Richard Dale, the company's global
products manager. Dale says the retailer's product assortment
includes such items as a roll-in shower, though the company does
not install the units. He also notes that Home Depot's kitchen
designers work with individuals with disabilities to create home
environments that include, among other features, counters that are
an appropriate height and levers instead of knobs on cabinets and
doors, making them easier to open and close.

In fact, the future looks bright for the entire universal
design/adaptable home market as the nation's aging consumers and
HME patients — who desire to remain independent —
search for the means to stay mobile in their own homes versus
entering hospitals or care facilities.