A wheelchair can be a faithful companion if well taken care of. But what happens with it after it has been sorted out?

Approximately 9000 wheelchairs are sorted out in Switzerland every year. That means: Due to ergonomic changes or increased requirements they no longer fulfill their users’ expectations. In many cases they are returned to their owner – in most cases the disability insurance (IV).

At the IV-depot a third of the wheelchairs is re-assigned

“We have a total of eight depots with about 150 employees”, says Ueli Siegrist, General Manager of the Swiss Working Group for Advice on Aids for the Disabled and the Elderly (SAHB). On order of the Federal Social Insurance Office this is where mobile aids such as wheelchairs, training devices, stair lifts and walkers are taken back and inspected.

“We always ask ourselves: Can we refurbish these things in an economically viable way?” explains Ueli Siegrist. And in a way that they get a second life at a new user? Beside financial aspects, of course also sustainability plays an important role. But not at all costs: “If we hand on used wheelchairs, our greatest focus lies on optimal adaptation.” If this is not possible, clients are referred to specialist stores.

About one third of the wheelchairs can be refurbished and re-assigned. The rest ends up either in parts in the spare part depot or are passed on to aid organizations, says Ueli Siegrist. “This way we support people with disabilities, for example in Jordan and Kosovo, and at the moment also refugees from Ukraine.”

An employee of the IV-depot tightens the screws on the frame of a wheelchair.

The returned assistive devices are serviced and, if necessary, repaired at the depot.

Old wheelchairs can bring more dignity to the life of Ethiopians

One of these aid organizations that regularly take sorted out wheelchairs is Rollaid where several social and sustainable aspects play a role. At the repair shop in Interlaken there are also people working who are dependent on support to be integrated in the working world. The refurbished devices are passed on for free to international aid organizations. Only the ones that are not usable at all are discarded.

“We collect around 800 to 1000 wheelchairs per year. 70 percent are from IV-depots, the rest are from specialized shops, homes or from private individuals.”

Bernhard Wissler, General Manager Rollaid

Four employees unload wheelchairs, traction devices and spare parts from a cargo container.

Rollaid ships the valuable goods via container. The majority of the material goes to the partner project Addis Guzo in Ethiopia.

«The World Health Organization estimates that worldwide around one percent of the population is dependent on a wheelchair”, says Bernhard Wissler, General Manager of Rollaid. A partner organization that receives the majority of the material is Addis Guzo in Ethiopia. Because this country does not have a social insurance system, there is also no provision of assistive devices for people with disabilities. There is great need.

“First of all a wheelchair improves the mobility of the people in need – and, best cast scenario it also promotes autonomy”, explains Bernhard Wissler. At the same time, the family’s or caretaker’s workload is often reduced, secondary damage prevented and access to education, training or work re-established. And: “The assistive devices enable the affected people to live with more dignity.”

Three employees of Addis Guzo measuring the sitting height of a child in a wheelchair.

Employees of Addis Guzo measuring a child’s wheelchair.

Affected people in Ethiopia are usually sent to Addis Guzo in the capital Addis Abeba by social services authorities. This is the only workshop in the entire country, which can do adjustments to all wheelchair models. Bernhard Wissler trained the first of today’s seven technicians himself there: “As we also supply spare parts, they are well equipped there and can perform a lot of tasks.”

An award-winning Swiss project

The employees of Rollaid are financed through donations and voluntary contributions. The workshop in Interlaken must not be profitable to comply with the agreement with the SAHB: As the IV passes on the material free of charge, the refurbished devices must also be passed on free of charge to recognized organizations.

The refurbishing of the wheelchairs, spare parts and assistive devices for reuse makes sense: “If all these devices were to be bought new, this would cost around four million Swiss Francs per year”, says Bernhard Wissler. Rollaid’s commitment is acknowledged – and won the Swiss Ethics Award and Charity of the Year by the Swiss Re Foundation. The General Manager’s biggest wish: “To ensure the medium and long-term financing.”

Two women with their wheelchairs and traction devices along a street in Addis Abeba.

Also in Ethiopia a wheelchair brings a certain autonomy.

Taking good care of your wheelchair

Also the company Orthotec in Nottwil supports Rollaid and other projects in Georgia, Tanzania and Madagascar with used equipment. The Orthotec’s experts take care of newly injured patients who do their initial rehabilitation at Swiss Paraplegic Center. Seat width and height, size of wheels, cushions and backrest – a well-adapted wheelchair is important to prevent secondary damage and pressure sores. Everything is discussed in detail to find the best fitting wheelchair. However, says Sales Director Peter Reichmuth, «it takes about two years and the respective experience before you can tell what fits and what should be adjusted”.

An Orthotec employee gives advice to a wheelchair user and shows him two front wheels.

Try, discuss, adjust. The experts of Orthotec aim to achieve the perfect interplay between user and wheelchair.

He is himself is paraplegic and knows how to take care of a wheelchair for a long useful life. Twice a year he has his vehicle serviced: «After the winter so that the ball bearings don’t get rusty. And after the summer because of the ocean water.” The experts then tighten all the screws, check the frame and the tires for cracks. And update the electronics depending on the model.

«Servicing the wheelchair is important. Nobody likes to walk around in shoes with holes in the soles either.”

Peter Reichmuth, Orthotec Sales Director

Also, every wheelchair owner can contribute their part. “It’s a bit like a car – it needs TLC” says Peter Reichmuth. He therefore cleans his wheelchair regularly using cockpit spray and twice per week he removes hair from the small front wheels; so that everything runs smoothly again. If well taken care of, a wheelchair can be used for a good ten years – before it begins its second life.

How do you take care of your wheelchair? We are looking forward to your tips and tricks!

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