Diagnosed: A Good Wheelchair Is Hard To Find In Rural Utah

Oct 2, 2018

Mindy Mair and her son, Kristopher Morgan, in front of the Vernal Public Library
Credit JoLynne Lyon / Center for Persons with Disabilities

“I hit the wheelchair almost five and a half years ago,” said Mindy Mair. When she says she “hit the wheelchair,” she means that is when she needed technology to get around Vernal, where she lives.

“And when I first went into it, I was a school district employee, so I had state insurance. They wouldn’t cover a wheelchair. I didn’t have Medicare yet,” she said.

At the time, Mindy didn’t know why she was having trouble walking. She still doesn’t know. She just knows that because of this unexplained illness, she had very bad days. She had to quit work. She sold her home to purchase a van that would transport her and a wheelchair. She moved in with her mother while her teenaged son took classes online, so he could be home to help his mom, and work with her on their archery hobby.

“So when my dad passed away I actually inherited his wheelchair," Mindy said. "And that’s what I used until it quit working.”

Without insurance, Mindy couldn’t get a new wheelchair, so she made do, using a chair conformed to her father’s body type and needs.

There were other problems, too.

“Mindy contacted us and said she was having some problems with her power wheelchair,” said Cameron Cressall, who coordinates the Utah Assistive Technology Program in the Uintah Basin. “We made an appointment and went out and repaired the chair so it would operate for her."

“So at first he was trying to keep the wheelchair I had running so I could still function for a while," Mindy said. "I think he worked on it five, six, seven times, trying different parts, trying different joysticks."

At the Utah Assistive Technology Program in Logan, Clay Christensen coordinates the office at Utah State University. Clay and his crew adapt wheelchairs, motorized scooters and other assistive technology devices for clients living in Logan and other northern Utah communities. But, that was about as rural as it got...

Until.....

Clay customizes a wheelchair for a client in the Logan AT lab.
Credit JoLynne Lyon / Center for Persons with Disabilities

“I was receiving calls throughout the state," said Clay, "particularly at the time a lot of the calls were coming from Vernal, Roosevelt, the Uintah Basin. And I started doing research and found out there just weren’t a lot of services for people out there. And people just needed help."

In 2016, Clay helped set up the Uintah Basin program. At that same time, Cameron began working with clients, like Mindy, to find resources and equipment they need to become more independent, to get to and from the grocery store, make trips to the library, or attend their children’s soccer games.

For Mindy, this meant she could spend time with family, pursue her archery, shop at the store, and go to medical appointments. She’s also involved in 4-H.

“At the time we discussed the possibilities of getting a new chair," Cameron said. "We discovered she did qualify and she had been trying, but she’d been having some problems getting a vendor that would work with her.”

She had completed step one: qualify for the equipment. Now for step two: find the equipment by going to a local wheelchair vendor. At the time, there was one shop in Vernal.

“I tried to get it from places here in town," Mindy said. "They just told me it’s too hard to get a chair through Medicare. Because by then I did have Medicare. They wouldn’t even help me. Walked off on me. Left me sitting there in the shop."

So Mindy drove 3 hours to find another vendor.

"I went all the way to Grand Junction, Colorado to try to get one," she said. "It just never happened. I worked with her for nine months, the chair never came through. Medicare never even saw the paperwork, never got referrals to the physical therapist, nothing.”

“It’s a challenge,” Clay said. “I think it will always be that way. That’s the nature of the beast in rural areas. It’s their location, it’s trying to keep vendors out there, just to get them there. Then it’s the service on the back end. And then the process of getting the equipment and the timeline involved, just because again, they’re in rural areas and it’s just a challenge.”

Cameron said: “I was familiar with a vendor that was working in the Uintah Basin, and I gave her their contact information and I also contacted the vendor and we helped mediate a meeting. They came out, did the evaluation and were able to get her a new power wheelchair.”

“He kind of explained how it worked,” Mindy said, “and got me in touch with the Alpine out in Provo, Utah. He sent me the papers, told me how to do it, went to the doctor, had the doctor fill it out, went to the physical therapist, it went right through. Had my chair within two months.”

It isn’t an ideal process. It takes time, there are insurance hurdles, and you may not know who to ask to find help.

But Mindy’s story gives us some idea of what it might be like to have limited mobility, or limited access, and limited hope while living in an area of the state where more could be done.

Visit the Utah Assistive Technology Program's website for more information on that program. More support for people can be found through the Utah Statewide Independent Living Council.

Support for Diagnosed has been provided in part by our members and Intermountain Budge Clinic, a multi-specialty clinic offering care for every member of your family in one location. Details found here.

For information on how to protect the opportunities and choices of Utahns with Disabilities, visit the Disability Law Center websitehttp://disabilitylawcenter.org.