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Cheap Wheelchairs, Part I: You Get What You Pay For - Erik Kondo

Updated: Mar 21

Bar graph of monthly wheelchair sales vs. price level.

There are millions of manual wheelchair users in the United States. The majority are using standard manual wheelchairs. These wheelchairs may be purchased new on Amazon or at major retailers such as Walmart. They can be delivered free to your door. By looking at the Amazon sales data, it is clear that the primary selling factor of the majority of standard manual wheelchairs is having the lowest price.

Reviewing Amazon sales data as shown on my bar chart, shows that last month, the top selling wheelchair was also the cheapest wheelchair ($115) at 3,000+ per month. The next cheapest ($139) has the number two slot at 2,000+ per month. Above $139, the sales drop off dramatically.  Amazon also provides installment plans for dividing the wheelchair cost into six monthly payments of less than $20 (for the $115 wheelchair).


Let’s remember that the sales price includes free shipping of a 40-50lbs bulky box. The only way seller can afford to price a wheelchair at ($115-139) and ship it to you is by purchasing wheelchairs in mass quantities at the lowest possible price from China. The cheapest (and most widely sold) wheelchairs on Amazon are also the cheapest wheelchairs sold wholesale on Alibaba at as low as $12 per wheelchair (see screenshot photo). This $12 wheelchair is basically the same design as the wheelchairs made in the 1940’s.

Man in wheelchair in front of other men in wheelchairs.

                                         Marlon Bando in “The Men” – 1950.


If we assume that the expected life of these wheelchairs is 2-4 years, the average daily investment in a person’s mobility is a few cents per day. The transition from walking to needing a wheelchair for mobility is a huge life transition for a person. It is a big deal. Yet, thousands of people per month are purchasing the cheapest manufactured wheelchair possible for themselves, or their family member/loved one.

On the other hand, when it comes to consumer products such as TVs, computers, mobile phones, footwear, bicycles, cars, etc. that arguably impact a person’s life much less than a wheelchair, the cheapest product is NOT the best seller. It is well established that buying the cheapest possible product typically leads to low quality and poor performance. Why the exception for wheelchairs?

I think it comes down to societal expectations. People except a wheelchair to be heavy, bulky and awkward to maneuver. They expect that the wheelchair user will need an attendant to help them get around. They don’t expect the wheelchair user to do much anyway, so does it really matter what wheelchair they use? They think all wheelchairs are alike, so why not buy the cheapest one? Many times, the wheelchair purchaser is not the end use making for much less interest in the wheelchair’s performance.

The unfortunate result is that millions of manual wheelchair users have significantly reduced mobility and independence due to using a poorly designed and manufactured wheelchair and they (and their family members/partners/friends) don’t realize it. A more appropriate wheelchair doesn’t have to be thousands of dollars. But it will cost more than 10 cents per day. I think an investment of $1 per day should be enough to provide someone with an adequate manual wheelchair that enables them to get around with relative ease. The bottom line is that you get what you pay for, and millions of wheelchair users are getting literally the cheapest and worst wheelchair the world when it comes to providing for their mobility and independence.

  NOTE: Some people due to economic circumstances will have to buy the cheapest wheelchairs. My point is not that some people buy the cheapest wheelchairs, it is that the majority of people buy the cheapest wheelchairs. This is an indication that manual wheelchairs are seen by the general public as commodities with no differentiation in quality and design. This is one reason that the design of these wheelchairs has been stagnant for decades.

Pope Francis and Dianne Feinstein in cheap manual wheelchairs.



1 Comment

Mar 17

I noticed from the photos that Diane and the Pope are not using any cushions on their wheelchair. I know that this must be not only uncomfortable but painful.

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