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Cheap Wheelchairs Part II: The Throwaway Wheelchair Cycle – Erik Kondo

Updated: Mar 24

In Cheap Wheelchairs Part I, I discussed how the cheapest wheelchairs manufactured in China and sold wholesale on are also the most popular wheelchairs sold on due to their low price.

The design of the wheelchairs reflects the priority of inexpensive mass production. They are designed/manufactured in such a manner that they are difficult and expensive to repair. The wheelchair manufacturers’ profits increase when you purchase a brand new wheelchair rather than trying to maintain and repair an existing one. In other words, the wheelchairs are designed to be thrown away, not repaired. This is the Throwaway Wheelchair Cycle that creates a tremendous amount of waste throughout the world.

Faced with the lack of availability of affordable spare parts and wheelchairs that are purposely manufactured to be difficult to repair, the high resource consumer makes the rational choice to chuck the entire wheelchair into the trash when anything goes wrong. They unwittingly become an integral part of the Throwaway Wheelchair Cycle.

The Throwaway Wheelchair Cycle is part of the general Throwaway Culture that results in a tremendous amount of consumer waste throughout the world. But wheelchairs are more than just consumer products. They are vital mobility devices whose functional performance directly impacts millions of people’s quality of life, productivity, and independence.

When things of perceived value breakdown, we repair them. We don’t throw them away. The fact that the wholesale cost of a wheelchair from China is about the same price as a large pizza shows how little societal effort is put into designing and making manual wheelchairs that are affordable, widely available, repairable, and highly functional.

The Throwaway Wheelchair Cycle provides an endless source of cheap low performance manual wheelchairs for people in wealthy countries. Thus, ensuring that most manual wheelchair users are using wheelchairs that diminish their mobility potential. Many of these wheelchairs end up in low resource countries as donations. Since they are difficult/expensive/impossible to repair, they are used in progressively worse condition until they breakdown entirely. The unfortunate wheelchair user is now stuck in bed without a functioning wheelchair and with little ability to afford a replacement.

On the other hand, we have the example of bicycles. People in wealthy countries don’t purchase the cheapest bicycles available. They tend to purchase affordable bicycles made from quality parts that allow for easy maintenance and repair. When they have a problem with their bicycle, they don’t throw it away, they get it fixed. The result is a worldwide system of bicycle production at a variety of price points, and a high availability of affordable bicycle components and repair shops.

People fixing bicycles outside in village in Ghana,

Baobab Bicycle Repair in Ghana

People in many low resource countries have access to affordable bicycles and they can get them repaired. Even inexpensively made bicycles must meet a minimum standard of functionality. Able-bodied people don’t buy poorly functioning (difficult to repair) bicycles even if they were priced very low. This same standard doesn't apply to wheelchairs.

If the same societal consideration that currently applies to bicycles were given to manual wheelchairs, there would be no Throwaway Wheelchair Cycle. Wheelchairs would come in a variety of prices, styles, and configurations for both high and low resource countries. They would be repairable and worth repairing. They would have a minimum standard of mobility performance to be considered acceptable. The cheapest wheelchair would NOT be the most popular wheelchair. The result would be increased mobility, quality of life, and independence for millions of people throughout the world.

1 Comment

Yvonne Jack
Yvonne Jack
Mar 25


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