Technically Sick:

Smart Mobility Devices: Reclaiming Autonomy

Hosted by Monica Michelle, June 13, 2022

In this episode, Justin shares the importance of technology, innovation, and smart design in the creation of smart personal mobility devices and how these smart chairs can create autonomy and allow for new experiences. You’ll learn about what makes a smart wheelchair different than a traditional power wheelchair, and the different ways mobility devices can support a variety of users. Justin and Monica also discuss the importance of able-bodied people testing out the mobility device technology they work on, and the future of mobility aide technology in airports, hospitals, malls, and beyond.   

“We’ll get random emails, of stories of how our device has changed their ability to get out, and be social, and have just a bit more of a fulfilling life being able to be more independent, and all kinds of stories.” – Justin Gagnon 

Timestamps

  • 4:17 When Justin first realized the impact of his work on the disability community  
  • 5:34 What makes a wheelchair smart? 
  • 7:55 Whill’s adjustments to their products based on customer feedback 
  • 10:10 Possible upgrades for smart wheelchairs 
  • 11:24 Personal mobility devices versus wheelchairs 
  • 12:31 Insurance coverage for smart wheelchairs 
  • 13:43 Funding for Whill’s products 
  • 14:27 Business use for Whill’s products 
  • 16:24 Payment options for public/shared smart wheelchairs 
  • 17:07 Benefits of autonomous smart wheelchairs for airports 
  • 18:52 Benefits of autonomous smart wheelchairs for hospitals 
  • 20:07 Justin’s opinion on the ideal future for smart wheelchairs 
  • 21:45 Roadblocks to expanding smart wheelchair use 
  • 25:08 Reduced liability concerns for business 
  • 26:46 Physician acceptance of wheelchairs 
  • 28:59 Technology Justin would love to see in the future

Takeaway Learnings

  1. Smart mobility devices differ from traditional power wheelchairs for a variety of reasons. While both are run through electricity, smart wheelchairs are fit with a lot of other functionalities, like Bluetooth capability, easy disassembling, and an increased attention to design for ease of use. Every smart wheelchair is different with so many different features.  
  2. While it’s been standard for even supermarkets to have scooters or wheelchairs, some venues are beginning to embrace the use of smart wheelchairs in hopes of creating more autonomy and independence for people who need additional mobility support.  
  3. Using a mobility aide does not have to be a 24/7 way of getting around. Some people only use their mobility devices on days they feel they really need it or in a situation they would otherwise have to be on their feet too long. This allows for people who would otherwise have to opt out of activities, such as taking a long walk with a friend, a museum visit, or a shopping trip to be able to participate in a way that’s comfortable for them

Actionable Tips

  1. If you’re a transportation office, a changemaker, or a developer, reach out to smart wheelchair companies and see how you can make these mobility devices available in your venues and give them a test drive yourself. 
  2. If you’re considering a mobility device for yourself, take a real honest assessment of your pain levels while moving. Remember, your wheelchair does not need to be something you use all of the time, but it might be really helpful to have on hand for those times where you need a little extra assistance.  
  3. Consider checking out Whill and other smart wheelchair companies. You will be so surprised by the amount of innovation that is happening in this space. To learn more, check out our show notes for additional information.

Additional Resources

Insurance Coverage of Regular Wheelchairs: 

Daily Life Problems Faced by Wheelchair Users (in Public Places) 

About Justin

Justin Gagnon is an MBA graduate from the Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba, and holds a Bachelor of Commerce, Honours in Business Administration with a Major in Marketing and Minor in Political Science from the University of Windsor. 

Justin has been working with WHILL for the past four years in various sales and marketing management positions now holding the title of Vice President of Sales for WHILL North America. WHILL Personal Electric Vehicles are bringing a fresh perspective to personal mobility with innovative design and state-of-the-art technology. In his role (based out of Winnipeg, Canada), Justin is responsible for the development and execution of WHILL’s North American sales strategies. Along with his team he is developing multiple sales channels and working closely with the marketing team on various campaigns/programs to bring WHILL’s new technology to the forefront in the North American market.   

Previous to working with WHILL Justin was an Account Director for a full-service marketing agency headquartered in Winnipeg with offices in Toronto, Calgary and Portland, OR. He served as his client’s primary contact working with them to develop strategic marketing plans, marketing campaigns and execute tactical marketing projects to support larger initiatives.   

Earlier in his career, Justin held the positions of Director of Marketing for a software development company, Manager of Investor Relations in the biotech industry and Business Development and Account Manager for a digital marketing agency. 

Justin, along with his wife Ashley, enjoys travelling, participating in many, sometimes extreme, outdoor activities and spending time with family and friends.

Transcript

[00:00:00] [Music] 

[00:06:05] Justin: We get stories from people all the time, who are our customers, of how our device has changed their ability to get out, and be social, and have more of a fulfilling life being able to be more independent. 

Read More

[00:19:41] Monica: Hi. Welcome to Technically Sick – This podcast explores how technology can increase access to education, employment, transportation, and improved socialization for the disabled and chronic illness community. 

[00:35:14] I’m your host, Monica Michelle. 

[00:40:23] [Music Ends] 

[00:40:23] Today I’ll be speaking with Justin Gagnon, who works at WHILL, a Personal Electric Vehicle company. WHILL is bringing a fresh perspective to personal mobility devices with innovative design and state-of-the-art technology. In his role, Justin is responsible for the development and execution of WHILL’s North American sales strategies.  

[01:03:90] My WHILL wheelchair has allowed me to have experiences that I couldn’t otherwise have without the help of a smart chair. For example, my cousin and I – we recently went for a hike on a wheelchair accessible trail. We crossed over a bridge and we went through the redwoods. Due to the wheels on my chair I was able to roll over sticks and bumps with very little discomfort. The best part was that because my chair has palm navigation, that means it doesn’t need to be controlled with the joystick. I was able to steer without even having to look down. I can engage in conversation with my cousin without any distraction.  

[01:41:72] WHILL has this amazing wheelchair and it was a life changing experience for me to be in the chair and it comes from so many different aspects, and it’s one of these companies that really seems to listen to what the disability community wants. And that is so important to me because it’s not just functional but it was stylish. And that often gets forgotten where a lot of the power wheelchairs over my price point kind of looked like an office chair on a lawn mower and it just felt depressing.  

[02:11:57] So, when I moved over to an electric chair, this was such a revelation. It not only was cool, it’s so Professor X, but it was also something that came apart into four separate pieces, and each piece was about anywhere from 8 to 10 pounds. So, once I wasn’t able to do that, my children were. So, my ten-year-old at the time could put this chair together. It’s that easy to put together.  

[02:38:56] And, the biggest thing that just rocked my universe is the Bluetooth capability. If I can’t get out of my bed, I can use my app to call my wheelchair to the side of my bed. That’s amazing. It changed everything from what I could do and how easy it would be to do. I was even able to start walking my dog again. 

[02:57:22] Justin shared with me that his passion for his work is ignited by the stories he heard has from current and prospective wheelchair users. Like the company itself, Justin has demonstrated a genuine care and commitment to the chronic illness and disability communities.  

[03:13:49] Smart wheelchairs are still a relatively new invention. There isn’t even a specific definition for what makes a wheelchair smart. They serve to increase one’s sense of independence and autonomy over one’s mobility and that has really been the case for me. 

[03:30:13] Please note that while Justin works at well and I happen to be a very passionate WHILL wheelchair user, our conversation is geared towards the general use of tech development of smart mobility devices and we have no paid affiliations.  

[03:46:27] [Music] 

[03:48:03] Welcome to Justin Gagnon! 

[03:53:75] [Music Ends] 

[03:53:75] Monica: I have to tell you, I am like your unofficial spokesperson for WHILL. It’s my wheelchair and I’m obsessed. I am in love with my wheelchair. Of all the things I have been able to use since I’ve become disabled that is probably the most life-changing.  

[04:02:40] Justin: Great to hear.  

[04:02:64] Monica: I’m glad to be able to tell you. [Laughs] 

[04:04:54] Justin: [Laughs] 

[04:05:96] Monica: It’s so rare you get to have something that helps you with your disability, that is a joy to use, and fun, and makes you feel cool. [Laughs] It has that Professor X vibe, which I very much appreciate. 

[04:17:03] Justin: Yeah. 

[04:17:84] Monica: Can you tell me when in your career with WHILL, did you realize that this was going to be a huge benefit for the disability and chronic illness community? 

[04:26:02] Justin: Yeah. You know what I’d have to say it was right when I started. I actually ended up going to an abilities expo and spending some time at the WHILL booth before I even started my role with WHILL, and I got to experience firsthand how people interacted with our devices. And to be honest, just the look on their faces that they had when they sat in it and they drove it around and often they would ask us to take a video or take some pictures of them sitting in one. Their confidence level would completely flip when they got into it. I think that was really a big selling point for me coming over to the company. It was just really cool to be part of.  

[05:03:09] And since, we get stories from people all the time, who are our customers, we’ll get random emails, of stories of how our device has changed their ability to get out, and be social, and have just a bit more of a fulfilling life being able to be more independent, and all kinds of stories.  

[05:19:45] Yeah, it’s really cool to be a part of. It’s a really exciting company, it’s a really exciting industry. When people talk about mobility scooters and wheelchairs, they don’t think of it as being able to be exciting, but with some of the changes that are happening and the stuff that we’re working on, I think it’s really cool. It’s cool to be a part of. 

[05:34:56] Monica: What is it that really changes from a smart chair or smart device for mobility versus a power wheelchair. I think that that’s not always clear. 

[05:44:80] Justin: It’s a really great question and I don’t think that there is a specific definition of what makes a smart wheelchair. I don’t think the industry has a consensus there. For us it’s a lot more than just the technology. I think when people think about what a smart device is they often think about the technology, and it being able to be connected to another device, or the internet, or through Bluetooth, or what have you. And, of course, our devices we do definitely focus on technology, and innovation, and putting a lot of that cool tech into them.  

[06:17:25] But for us it’s also a lot more than that. It’s about smart design. We want people to feel confident when they’re on our devices. We want them to feel like they look good. Something as simple as redesigning the front wheels – we have our Omni directional wheels, we just call them our Omni wheels, that allows people to navigate really tight spaces, and still get outdoors, and handle rougher terrains. Being able to take the device apart and travel with it a lot easier than a traditional wheelchair. I think all of those types of smart design aspects, as well as the technology that goes into it, is really what makes it a “smart chair”. 

[06:56:21] Monica: It’s really interesting the chair – it does have Bluetooth connectivity.  

[07:00:70] Justin: Yeah, it’s a really neat feature. So, you can connect to your smartphone. There’s an app you can download. There’s a few different features within the app. One of the cool ones that everybody talks about is the remote driving ability. You can essentially drive it like it’s a remote-control car using your smartphone, which is really cool. And to be honest, when I first heard about this feature, and I think when a lot people do, they think it’s a little bit gimmicky, and it’s just a bit of a salesy thing, but a lot of people have some really great practical stories on how they utilize that remote functionality.  

[07:33:21] You can also adjust different speed settings. You can lock your chair so that you can leave it somewhere and not need to worry about somebody taking it. You see what your battery range is, so if you’re out for a longer time or a longer trek, you know just how far you have left to go before you need to worry about recharging your battery. A lot of really cool features that you can do through that connectivity and through your smartphone. 

[07:55:37] Monica: What are some of the innovations we’re seeing, especially with batteries? Are you saying that there might be something new on the horizon, as far as powering, or as far as being able to get a longer range, or a quicker charge? 

[08:06:62] Justin: It’s a fine balance right now with battery technology. Most of the manufacturers that are out there including ourselves are moving towards lithium ion – definitely lighter weight, a little bit pricier, it’s a bit of a balance of how big, and how much storage of a battery does somebody actually need versus the cost of what that battery is going to be, as well as the ability to travel with it. Airlines have limits as to how big a lithium ion battery can be for you to travel with it, so we definitely want to stay within that limit to provide people with an opportunity to fly, and take their devices with them. But then, like you said, provide enough range.  

[08:41:90] We also try to make the battery very easily replaceable. So, if you did have a spare battery, it essentially doubles your range that you have. I think other manufacturers are doing that as well. Some of them you could even have the option of having one battery or two batteries connected right to it. So essentially you’re extending your range. It’s going to cost you a little bit more, but if long range is important to you then you can determine that you want to make that upgrade. 

[09:07:61] Monica: You had said before that the Bluetooth being able to call the chair over to you has been considered gimmicky by some. I would definitely disagree being someone in chronic pain where to able to have that come right to the bedside I find sanity-saving, but for you, what would look like a gimmick versus something that you could see the community really needing? How do you guys figure that out? Do you have a bunch of testing? How do you decide what’s gimmick versus what is truly helpful? 

[09:33:91] Justin: Yeah, we really try listen to different communities, different disability communities that are out there, different associations that will try to learn what do people need? What are they looking for? We’re on our second iteration of the model C. We originally launched our CGI, and now we’ve moved to our C2, and even the small iterations that we’ve made from the C to the C2 have been from listening to our customers, and understanding what their needs are, what could be improved, and making those changes just to try to add as much value as possible to make it as easy to use and as functional as it really can be. 

[10:10:94] Monica: What have you heard from people that you’ve outreached to that really want something for their chair that just isn’t technologically ready yet? 

[10:19:30] Justin: You know, it’s funny, I think a lot of people are very forward-thinking in terms of what should be possible. A lot of it is like the ability to climb stairs we hear all the time, and there are devices out there that can do it, but they are quite expensive. It’s not an easy thing to manage. The ability to raise up to be more at eye level, same thing – it’s doable, there are chairs out there that can do that and have that functionality. It sounds like it’s a cool feature, but the cost implications that would go into innovating that into the current device, I don’t think would be a feature that most people would want for the price tag that would come with it.  

[10:56:43] Things like that, even something as simple as being able to navigate really loose sand. A lot of people would love to take their power chair right out onto beach, pretty much right up to the water, and that sounds great. Unfortunately, just to have the tires that you could use indoors and navigate tight spaces work just don’t work in that type of an environment. They don’t work in really loose sand. There are some chairs and there are some options out there but it’s just not quite as easy putting a different tire on the chair.  

[11:24:94] Monica: You’re talking about some different developings and if I understand correctly, the wheelchair company you work for is considered a personal mobility device. Is that correct? 

[11:34:06] Justin: Yeah and we referred to it as a personal mobility device for a few reasons. We’re working on some different technologies that we would consider offering for people that don’t necessarily have a disability, but maybe just a little bit of reduced mobility, can’t walk as long a distance as perhaps they used to. They could use our device in more of a short-term, short distance, more of a micro mobility type of setting, versus a wheelchair. Which, I think most people would consider more of medical necessity or a medical requirement type of a device.  

[12:04:35] That being said, one of the other reasons that we were a personal mobility device for a very long time is we didn’t pursue FDA clearance on the device for a few different reasons. So technically we couldn’t refer to it as a wheelchair. We since have gone through the FDA process and have received clearance on our C2 so we can call it a wheelchair, technically now. I think in most cases we still prefer to use personal mobility device, but calling it a wheelchair is totally fine now. 

[12:31:23] Monica: Does that change the ability for people to access it? If it’s FDA cleared would that help with being able to use insurance to purchase something versus a personal mobility device where insurance most likely will have issues? 

[12:43:03] Justin: A little bit. Unfortunately not quite as much as we would hope. I think still with our device, because of all of the features that it has, and at the price point that it is, most insurance companies would prefer their customers move to a less expensive, less feature-rich product, I would say. Providing a product for that patient, for that customer, that meets their daily necessities, but doesn’t necessarily provide any more than that, is what we hear. So, because of all of the additional features that our chair provides, often the insurers will stay away from it, which makes it a little bit challenging. However, there are some private insurers out there that definitely provide some coverage for them. We’re working with Veterans Affairs to have them provide it for some vets, which we’ve had some success doing in different VA clinics across the country as well. I think we’re getting there in some instances. I think unfortunately for the masses, when we’re were talking about Medicare and Medicaid, it’s a very difficult process to go through.  

[13:43:17] Monica: Are you finding that, in general, in the industry of innovating mobility aids, is there an issue with getting that funding? 

[13:52:43] Justin: There are some grant opportunities out there that we’ve pursued and some we’ve had some success with. Most of them are not that big. The vast majority of our funding has all been privately raised. We really rely on the sales of our products to drive our business forward. Any profits that we’re making on the devices that we sell today to just put right back into continuing to create new, innovative products, and continue to make the adaptations to our current products to make them a little bit more feature-rich and valuable for the folks that are going to be using them. 

[14:27:21] Monica: I’ve talked about personal use but I would also like to talk about business use, in transportation hubs. The idea of using these in something like a campus in a college, or a campus business – definitely transportation. Can you speak to that for this new innovation of personal mobility? 

[14:44:42] Justin: Yeah, definitely, and we’re working on a few really exciting things right now, too. So, we do have an autonomous product that is currently being used at a few different venues in Japan – first started being used at an airport in Japan. Essentially it will drive a passenger, completely autonomously, and avoid any obstacles. If somebody jumps in front it has auto stop, so it makes sure it’s not going to run into anybody or anything. And it will navigate passengers throughout an airport without the need for somebody to be manually pushing that person on a traditional wheelchair. We’ve sort of launched that in Japan.  

[15:19:10] We’ve since tested that technology at airports really across the world and at quite a few different airports in the United States as well. So, it’s definitely coming. I think it’s a really cool technology. Have had conversations with other bigger venues like museums and malls, various campuses, different hospital settings to move patients around. Yeah, it’s a really cool technology. Definitely going to be seeing more of it as you visit these bigger venues.  

[15:43:52] In the meantime, however, we are also working on providing more micro mobility options for people with reduced mobility. Today, if you visit really any major city, there are two-wheel scooter options that you can just essentially pick up and go, or e-bikes, that are available to rent and drop off at various locations across the city, or across the campus, or bigger venues. We’re working with a couple of partners, as well as our own technology, to create that type of an option for people with reduced mobility. So essentially, they can take a power wheelchair for just a really short, quick trip, from point A to point B, and leave it there and have that sort of all taken care of for them. 

[16:24:44] Monica: How would that work – in a very similar way how we’re used to paying for these scooters, where you would just pay for the single use or…?  

[16:31:95] Justin: There’s different options that we’re looking at. The pay for use model is definitely something that we’re moving forward with. I think it’s going to be an option at some venues. Today there are venues that do offer mobility options. At some venues they offer it as a courtesy for people. In some venues it’s a pay-per-use. You can rent it for a couple of hours or a half a day or for a full day, but it still requires somebody to be there to sign it out, to get it back, where the app model allows people to just take them and then leave them as needed. So, just a little bit more flexibility and independence for sure. 

[17:07:78] Monica: Aside from just the idea of safe mobility, what are some of the other benefits? If I was going to be someone who’s in charge of transportation in an airport, what would be the benefit of having this? 

[17:19:01] Justin: It creates a lot of different options for people. I think one of the big ones that we hear a lot of for passengers with reduced mobility, that are taking advantage of the current traditional wheelchair push, that is currently provided by most or all of the airlines, is that that passenger feels like they don’t really have a lot of options for stopping by the Starbucks on the way to their gates, or going and checking out the bookstore, or stopping at a restaurant, or even something as simple as going to the restroom.  

[17:46:09] Typically, what happens is they ask for that service when they’re checking in at the airline counter, and then they get pushed through security and on to their gate, and then they end up just sitting at their gate and waiting for their flight. And then when the flight’s ready to board, somebody from the airline comes and helps them onboard. Having an option where somebody could take a chair on their own, whether autonomous or even a self-drive unit, provides them with a lot of independence to explore the airport while they wait for their flight. Just provides a completely different experience than what they would be used to. 

[18:13:67] The other thing we’re hearing too right now, especially as we’re coming out COVID, and people are starting to get back traveling again, there’s definitely a labor shortage. So, there’s a lot of airlines and airports that are now struggling to provide enough staffing resources for that push. We hear stories about people missing flights and just getting stuck at the airport because they weren’t able to get somebody to push them to the gates soon enough, even if they show up with plenty of time. Just providing different options. If somebody still wants that traditional push service, it’s going to be there for them, but if they would rather just take a device on their own, I think that option should be available and, like I said, creates a better experience for them at the airport.  

[18:52:92] Monica: I would like to hear a little bit more about how this could work in a hospital setting as well.  

[18:57:45] Justin: We’ve had quite a few meetings with various hospitals about how today, patients are being moved throughout their facilities. A lot of these hospitals are campuses on their own. People are getting tests, and have to go to get an x-ray, and then go back to their room, and then go off to the blood lab or whatever. They’re often being shuffled around and moved around the hospital. Essentially the same idea as the airport – to be able to provide somebody with a device to say, “okay, now you need to go to the x-ray reception area,” and you can just hit a button on the chair and it would just autonomously take you there, so you don’t need to know the map of the hospital, you don’t need to understand where you’re going, it just takes care of you.  

[19:38:36] Lots of excitement there, and I think, again the staffing requirements of having people assigned to just move patients around, to get rid of that need. In many cases, these are nurses that are pushing patients around, and we all know how valuable nurses are at the hospital. So, we’d much rather have them doing tasks that are much more valuable than simply providing transportation. Again, I think it’s just providing options and trying to add value in an area where it’s currently a bit of a resource challenge these days. 

[20:07:73] Monica: We had talked about some different things that other wheelchairs do currently, such as standing, going up and down stairs. What are some of the things that aren’t in existence right now that you are seeing smart wheelchairs moving towards?  

[20:21:98] Justin: Beyond just the hardware of the chair and the things that it would be able to do, as you’re driving it, I think the connectivity of the whole journey is somewhere where I’d like to see things come together a little bit better. Just experiencing myself, as an able-bodied person who has now had an opportunity to use wheelchairs, as I visit different venues, as I traveled, I’ve traveled with a CI and a C2 quite a bit as well.  

[20:45:04] The challenges that are faced when you’re in a wheelchair are very different than when you’re not. When I’m traveling without a chair, I don’t have to consider where the elevators are, and I don’t need to consider what hotel room I’m going to be staying in, and how I’m going to get from the airport to the hotel, and all of these trying to connect the dots of planning that journey. For somebody who’s able-bodied you just don’t even have to think about it because there are so many options it’s essentially designed for you to get from point A to point B without having to consider it. But for people in a wheelchair, you really have to take the time to plan that out ahead of time and understand where you’re going and how you’re going to get from point A to point B and what point B is going to look like when you get there.  

[21:26:48] I think if there was more connectivity and being able to even provide that information right on the chair itself, or whether it’s on your smartphone, that’s connected to your chair, to provide some guidance, so you don’t have to preplan so much, so you can travel like the general public. I think that would be really cool.  

[21:45:89] Monica: What are some of the roadblocks you’re seeing for people to accept this – be it someone who is dealing with, “I might need a wheelchair in the personal sphere” versus more corporations, or people who are decision-makers embracing this as part of their business model.  

[22:01:80] Justin: On the personal side of things, I think what we’re finding is there’s definitely a little bit of a different mindset when it comes to a wheelchair, even versus a traditional mobility scooter. I think there’s a lot of folks out there that have reduced mobility, but don’t necessarily consider themselves as being disabled. They may have some arthritis or may have had a knee replacement or an injury, and don’t necessarily consider themselves as disabled, but still can’t walk a half a mile. When they look at a device like ours, that looks more like a wheelchair, they almost think well, that’s for somebody with a disability. I just need a scooter. I think there’s a little bit of a mind shift there that’s happening. We’re trying to work with our customer base different and demographics to get them over that hump and show them the different features, and benefits of using a device like ours versus some of the traditional devices that are out there. Definitely a stepping block there.  

[22:53:79] For people who have been early diagnosed, we find often gravitate towards our devices, often because of the design and because of a lot of the smart features that we’ve already talked about. I think there’s less of a mindset shift that needs to happen. I think people who have been diagnosed with a disease and they understand that they’re losing their mobility are going to be looking for something that feels less medical. I think in many ways, we provide that. A little bit of an easier sell, I would say.  

[23:22:37] In terms of the bigger venues though, that’s a really good question. We find a lot of the conversations that we have, often they come down to cost and cost benefit. If we can make a really good case as to, even some of the things that you said, somebody is going to spend 50% more time at the mall because they’re comfortable, versus leaving 50% earlier than they would have, very likely they’re going to be spending a lot more money at your location. It ends up becoming a little bit more of a money conversation and a return on investment conversation when you start talking about the bigger venues.  

[23:54:67] However, I think in today’s world as well, there’s been some interesting negative PR stories that have come out around, even at airports, people missing their flights and it ends up costing them a vacation and things of that nature. Some of those venues want to mitigate those negative PR stories as much as possible and be seen as providing better options for people with disabilities. In those cases, try to lean on that a little bit as well, to try to get them over the hump to say, this is also a really good PR story. You’re providing some really cool, innovative tech that’s helping people with disabilities navigate your venue. I think you’re probably going to get more people coming out to your venue than you otherwise would have.  

[24:34:57] So, I think, we’re getting there. I think there are some big venues that have been providing mobility equipment for a really long time, a lot of big convention centers. On cruise ships you can rent mobility equipment. I think it’s just a matter of time before we’re going to see, hopefully our chairs, in many venues across the country. 

[24:51:41] Monica: That’d be really exciting. The chairs that I get offered are not smart chairs. I usually get offered push chairs, which means zero autonomy. So, a push chair for our audience that’s not familiar, is that the wheels aren’t even up near your hands, someone has to be behind you to push that. And that’s usually what I get offered if I’m somewhere. 

[25:08:58] I was wondering, is reduced liability something that could work in these situations, because you have less of a fall risk for people if they are using the smart chair in a large environment? They can’t get toppled, they can’t get pushed. Is that something that works well in that conversation?  

[25:24:11] Justin: We’ve had that conversation for sure. And I think definitely the autonomous units, like when we talk about the ability for them to have the auto stop, so they essentially work like an autonomous car. They have LIDAR sensors on them and stereo cameras. And so, they can’t hit anything. The venues have no problem with those. Obviously, the cost is quite a bit higher than our typical model C2 that people would be buying at a mobility dealer. But that one on a liability standpoint is a really great conversation. However, we’ve had a lot of conversations recently too with venues to provide self-driving power mobility products, in their venues, and there is liability worry, I would say, of what if somebody crashes or what if somebody hits somebody? What if somebody goes up or down an escalator and then has a crash. Those types of things worry people as well.  

[26:09:65] We’ve done some tests. We did a trial, not too long ago, at the Tampa bay airport at TPA. We were there for four weeks. I think we had about 160 passengers just take one of our self-drive model C2 units and drive themselves to their gate. They had to go up and down elevators, they had to go down a sky train to get out to their terminal, and we had zero incidents and tons of really great feedback. I think that kind of opened up everybody’s eyes a little bit more to say, “you know what, this is probably something that we should look at”. This is not something that we need to be so scared of and provides a great option for folks.  

[26:46:47] Monica: I have one more question about getting over that hump of getting people to accept this, and that would be from a medical standpoint. I received a lot of pushback when I told my doctors I wanted to start using a wheelchair. The argument was that they wanted me to stay strong and not weaken and when disabled people aren’t seen because we don’t have access these new smart chairs allow for access, which allows visibility and hopefully more empathy, and better things to happen and more access. I will just say for everyone, I’m not a doctor. I cannot speak to anything except my own personal experience. And, being able to move pain free allowed me the ability to do my physical therapy. So that’s just my personal experience with this. How do we work with doctors and pain practitioners on this issue? There’s a lot of pushback I’ve received and I know a lot of my friends have.  

[27:33:73] Justin: We try to educate those practitioners, less so with doctors, we work more so with occupational therapists, physical therapists, to educate them on the benefits of providing people with an option to have power mobility. I think we can all agree staying active and continuing to move your body is something that everybody should be doing and is a healthy choice to be making, but if you’re going on a really long journey, or if you’re traveling, and want to spend a day roaming around the streets of your favorite city in Italy, where it’s hilly and there’s cobblestones, to use a manual chair to navigate that is just next to impossible.  

[28:12:22] Power mobility just really opens up people’s worlds in terms of how much they’re able to experience. I’m not necessarily saying that it should be a device that somebody would need 24/7 as their everyday-use chair, but to have that option for times when you know that it’s going to be a tougher, longer day, or have some steeper hills to climb, or whatever it is that you’re up to that you just need that extra little bit of assistance that day. I don’t think is a bad thing either. 

[28:40:49] Monica: That’s a beautiful way to say that. We call it spoons from the spoonie theory of like, you get a certain amount of spoons in the day for your energy, and when you’re chronically ill even brushing your teeth takes a few of those spoons away. So, that explanation is a beautiful way of saying you can save those spoons, by being able to use this for something else that you might need to do later in the day. 

[28:59:68] I would keep you all day and talk mobility, [Laughs] but I have one last question for you, which is – in a world where anything can exist and we don’t even have to push this on wheelchairs, but anything – you can go full star Trek on me? 

 

[29:12:39] Justin: [Laughs] 

 

[29:12:81] Monica: But, in the technological, like not even necessarily on the horizon, would you love to see? 

[29:18:27] Justin: That’s a really good question. I kind of talked about the connectivity part of it. I think that’s a really big one, but yeah, if we’re really thinking outside of the box, I’d say something that could hover. Like if you could hover – 

[29:28:90] Monica: Ooh! 

[29:29:45] Justin: You could navigate stairs, and bigger steps, and curbs, the sand, and all kinds of different terrains that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to. Yeah, I think that would be pretty cool. 

[29:39:68] Monica: I am all for a hover chair. That whole Professor X-ness is definitely the thing I would love to see.  

[29:45:92] Thank you so much. You’ve really given an incredible way of seeing, what I believe really strongly, which is exposure equals empathy.  

[29:52:72] Justin: Well I appreciate having the opportunity to talk to you today and hopefully it’s the first of many conversations that we’ll be having and really appreciate being able to have the conversation with your audience as well. 

[30:02:47] [Music Plays] 

[30:05:47] Monica: Thank you for listening to my conversation with Justin Gagnon from WHILL. As a smart wheelchair user myself, I really believe this is the future of mobility devices.  

[30:15:51] If you’ve been considering a mobility device, please remember they don’t have to be an all or nothing option. Right before I got diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos I was really resistant to using a mobility device, even when the pain was really extreme with every single step I was taking. Around that time, my husband and I were traveling in Italy and we were really looking forward to seeing the Etruscan ruins. I walked all the way up a mountain using a cane, but by the time we got to the ruins themselves, I was in so much pain I just couldn’t take another step. And this really wonderful guide from the Etruscan ruins came running up and he could see how much pain I was in and he brought over an electric wheelchair for me to use.  

[30:59:40] Before that day I fought against using a wheelchair. I didn’t think I needed it because I was still technically able to walk. On this day I decided it was worth the try. It was the only time I was going to be there to see these ruins and the wheelchair they gave me had two-speed options: turtle and rabbit. It wasn’t even a choice. I clicked on rabbit and I zoomed through the ruins. And the thing I remembered was the sensation of freedom. I was moving without pain. I could do everything my husband did. Um actually, I did it faster than him because he was running to keep up with me. [Laughs] But it was that point that I realized that a mobility device was not giving in. Not for me. It was not giving ground. It was allowing me to have adventure still. It was allowing me to move without pain and I deserved the chance to move without pain. After this experience it wasn’t even a question – I had to get an electric chair of my own.   

[31:58:40] My WHILL wheelchair is truly one of the most impactful pieces of technology I’ve ever used. If you’ve been considering a smart wheelchair and you have the ability to test one out, I very much recommend it. You absolutely have the right to move without pain. 

[32:14:45] The takeaway learnings from this episode are: 

[32:17:72] 1) Smart mobility devices differ from traditional power wheelchairs for a variety of reasons. While both are run through electricity, smart wheelchairs are fit with a lot of other functionalities, like Bluetooth capability, easy disassembling, and an increased attention to design for ease of use. Every smart wheelchair is different with so many different features.  

[32:44:36] 2) While it’s been standard for even supermarkets to have scooters or wheelchairs, some venues are beginning to embrace the use of smart wheelchairs in hopes of creating more autonomy and independence for people who need additional mobility support.  

[32:59:14] 3) Using a mobility aide does not have to be a 24/7 way of getting around. Some people only use their mobility devices on days they feel they really need it or in a situation they would otherwise have to be on their feet too long. This allows for people who would otherwise have to opt out of activities, such as taking a long walk with a friend, a museum visit, or a shopping trip to be able to participate in a way that’s comfortable for them. 

[33:28:69] The actionable tips from this episode are:  

[33:32:05] 1) If you’re a transportation office, a changemaker, or a developer, reach out to smart wheelchair companies and see how you can make these mobility devices available in your venues and give them a test drive yourself. 

[33:47:01] 2) If you’re considering a mobility device for yourself, take a real honest assessment of your pain levels while moving. Remember, your wheelchair does not need to be something you use all of the time, but it might be really helpful to have on hand for those times where you need a little extra assistance.  

[34:05:86] 3) Consider checking out WHILL and other smart wheelchair companies. You will be so surprised by the amount of innovation that is happening in this space.  

[34:16:12] For more information on Justin and WHILL check out our show notes. Every episode of Technically Sick has a page on EmpoweredUs.org, where you can find extended show notes, including tips and takeaways, transcripts, and relevant resource links. 

[34:32:66] If you would like to share your own tips related to this topic, or just to connect with us, visit the Empowered Us contact page or reach out to us on our social channels. 

[34:43:65] Technically Sick is an Empowered Us Original presented by Good Days, hosted by me, Monica Michelle. If you liked this episode, be sure to rate and subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts. 

[35:05:61] [Music Ends] 

Read Less