Imagine you wanted information on the workings of a bicycle, you would seek out an experienced bicycle technician and rider. Someone who loves to work on and ride bicycles. Or if it was a car you needed to learn about, you would consult with a “motorhead”. In both these cases, you are looking for a true expert with a deep understanding of the mechanics of the vehicle and with personal experience with high performance riding or driving.
Who do you contact to learn about the functionality, optimization, and performance of wheelchairs? A common thought would be to talk with a medical professional such as an occupational or physical therapist. But typically, they don't actually use, adjust, or repair wheelchairs. They also associate wheelchairs and wheelchair users with medical problems and environments such as rehabilitation hospitals. It is common for many of them to lack understanding on real life wheelchair use.
You could ask a wheelchair user. But does the typical bike rider or automobile owner know much about the mechanical functioning of their bicycle or car? Usually, they don’t. Is it reasonable to expect that the typical wheelchair user is comparable to a bicycle/car technician in terms of practical knowledge and experience with a wide variety of wheelchairs and their different setups and optimizations?
What about wheelchair industry sales representatives? Once again, they are unlikely to be wheelchair users. And they are likely to be heavily biased towards the products they sell. Therefore, their knowledge is both limited and suspect.
The world of wheelchairs has nothing similar to the body of knowledge and specialized training that goes into producing expert users on bicycles, automobiles, skateboards, motorcycles, scooters, and pretty much any popular consumer mobility device.
In other words, wheelchair literacy is low, and there is no established system to raise it. There is no “wheelchair university” for people to attend. No classes to take. In addition, much of the research done on wheelchair usage consists of underpowered studies using wheelchair users who are not necessarily representative of the population at-large. It is also common for wheelchair research studies to use able-bodied participants for convenience. The wheelchairs used in the studies are also likely to be hospital style or not properly configured for optimum mobility.
The net result is that despite being around longer than bicycles and having relatively simple performance dynamics, manual wheelchairs are largely not understood by most people. This lack of knowledge has stagnated wheelchair innovation.
In order to rectify this problem, there needs to be a concerted effort to raise wheelchair literacy by the medical community, academic institutions, the wheelchair industry, and wheelchair users themselves.
Imagine for s moment if a fraction of the creative thought, talent, and resources that are currently invested in competitions such as Redbulls’ Flugtug or solar powered vehicle races was directed to wheelchair innovation. The wheelchair would most likely be reinvented for the betterment of millions.