Say you bought an expensive new car. It came equipped with fantastic features you never imagined existed, but still there were things about it that bugged you. You couldn't squeeze it into your garage, for one, and it was noisier than you expected. What's more, its controls were overly complicated. Then, out of the blue, the dealer calls and tells you there is a new model. They've fixed what had bothered you. Just bring the old one in, the dealer says, and they'll give you the new one. The best part is that the trade won't cost you a dime. Sound unbelievable? Well, it's just what's happening to owners of the iBOT, the revolutionary, stair-climbing wheelchair, and these first-generation users are pleased as punch.
Independence Technology, the company formed by Johnson & Johnson to market the iBOT, is giving all first-generation owners a spanking new iBOT 4000. "It is very cool of them to do it," said 17-year-old Megan Yekel, a Wilkes-Barre, Pa., high school junior, who uses a wheelchair because she has a form of muscular dystrophy.
We wanted to know why Johnson & Johnson was being so generous. It turns out that it isn't costing the health care behemoth all that much because it hasn't sold that many iBOTs. It's "a relatively small customer base," is the tactful way a spokesman put it. Company policy stopped him from revealing the number of iBOTs sold or giving any sales projections for the second-generation chair. But clearly, the company expects that the iBOT 4000, with its many improvements, will be a hit.
From the day that famed inventor Dean Kamen and his engineers got it rolling, the iBOT has been unique. Besides its stair-climbing ability, it can raise you up for face-to-face conversations with standing people. It doesn't make you stand, like some other wheelchairs. Instead, it elevates you in a sitting position by rotating its four-wheel base until the chair perches on two wheels.
What sets the iBOT apart is its uncanny ability to balance while moving. Its sensors continuously and automatically adjust the gyro-balance system to your center of gravity. The iBOT's computers process 10,000 signals per second, positioning, stabilizing and constantly readjusting the 289-pound chair and its driver. A standing person does the same sort of thing unconsciously. Kamen and his DEKA research and development crew used this same know-how to build the Segway Human Transporter, a two-wheel scooter for walkies that balances itself.
All of the iBOT's razzle-dazzle technology lets you go places and do things that are impossible to do with nearly all other wheelchairs. Here's a rundown of its functions:
Rising to eye level in "balance" function lets you move and reach high places independently.
In the "stair" function, you are able to climb up and down stairs, with or without assistance.
Using the "four-wheel" function you can mount curbs as high as 5 inches and travel over beach sand, gravel, grass, thick carpet and other normally difficult surfaces.
The "remote" function lets you or someone else drive the unoccupied iBOT.
You control the iBOT the same way you operate a traditional power chair when you're in the "standard" function.
To decide what needed fixing, Independence Technology listened to its customers' suggestions and complaints. It lowered both the price (from $29,000 to $26,100) and the seat--so it now easily fits under tables and desks. Other changes include simpler controls, swing-away footrests, a smoother, quieter ride and less required maintenance. You also are now allowed to stay in it while it is being transported if you use four-point tie-downs.
However, you still can't drive from the iBOT because there's no way to secure it to the floor with an EZ Lock or other devices. For quads who find it difficult or impossible to transfer to a driver's seat, it's a definite drawback. Are there plans to change that? "We are always working on future improvements to the iBOT, but are not in a position to share specifics," said the spokesman.
Insurance reimbursement remains spotty. Veterans Affairs has been buying the chair for some of its clients, and Medicare is now deciding whether it will pay for the chair, but getting private insurance companies to cover it has been a struggle.
"Medicaid in New Jersey and in California have issued coverage criteria for the iBOT," the spokesman said. "Through our case management process," he added, "several private insurance companies, including some vocational rehabilitation organizations, have covered and reimbursed for the iBOT." Johnson & Johnson's own health insurance providers have paid for iBOTs for some company employees and their family members.
Owners of the original iBOT can swap their old machines for the new ones at their 18-month maintenance check.
Sixteen-year-old Jeb Erwin can hardly wait to do it. The Bloomfield Village, Mich., high school sophomore, who, like Yekel, has muscular dystrophy, told us that he had taken a test spin in the iBOT 4000. "I really liked it," he said. "It was a much smoother ride. Its new wheels help it go up curbs easier. It is quieter, makes tighter turns and has a better design overall."
Jeb's mother, Betsy, was also looking forward to the new chair. Jeb doesn't have the arm strength to climb stairs in the iBOT unassisted, she explained, so she and her husband help him. "It's going to be much easier to do that with the new one," she reported. "On the old chair, you had to raise a handle. That was very awkward and more often than not didn't pull out the first time. On this one, the handle does not have to be raised. This chair is also much quieter and more streamlined. Its profile is smaller. It looks more like an office chair."
Because he pilots his own high performance airplane, 61-year-old Chad Colley is sensitive to the way machines perform. He loves his new iBOT.
His old one rocked back and forth disconcertingly when it raised him to eye level. "You kind of get used to it," he said, "but you want to make sure that no one is standing in front of you. I got people to move to my side because I didn't want to roll over their toes." He isn't going to have to warn them now. "The new one is much steadier," says Colley, a New Smyrna Beach, Fla., resident.
Wounds Colley received in Vietnam left him a triple amputee, with one arm. As a result, wheelchair cushions don't work very well for him. He's pleased that he doesn't need one with the new optional automotive seat. It's 18 inches from the floor, has a contoured foam seat, a backrest and adjustable height headrest.
You use your own cushion or the one that comes with it on the standard rehab seat. It's 21.5 inches high, has clothing guards, a backrest and adjustable height headrest. The backrest includes adjustable foam pads that you can use for postural support.
Another disabled vet, 58-year-old Michael Brickert, of Wise River, Mont., agrees with Colley that J&J got it right this time. "They did a great job on improving a great product," he says.
The T2-3 paraplegic could have been speaking for all the iBOT owners.
For a free test drive or more info, call 866/813-0789 or visit www.ibotnow.com.