Manitoba

Manitoba wheelchair users left stuck by cheap chairs

Allen Mankewich is in a wheelchair because of spina bifida, not because of a car accident, which means he can only use the best wheelchair that he can afford, rather than the best wheelchair for his disability.
Allen Mankewich says the Society for Manitobans with Disabilities “went for the economical [wheelchairs] ones as opposed to the best ones." (Meaghan Ketcheson/CBC)

Allen Mankewich is in a wheelchair because of spina bifida, not because of a car accident, which means he can only use the best wheelchair that he can afford, rather than the best wheelchair for his disability.

"It's strange I know, but because I was born this way, I don't have the same options as someone who has an acquired disability," said Mankewich, co-chair of the League for Manitobans with Disabilities. "If you're injured in an accident, you can buy a $30,000 wheelchair through a civil suit or an MPI settlement."

Mankewich was responding to a CBC interview earlier this week with Danielle Otto, a 24-year-old Winnipeg woman with cerebral palsy, who is raising money to purchase a better wheelchair than the one provided through Manitoba's wheelchair services program.

Right now, that program, run through the Society for Manitobans with Disabilities, lends out manual and power wheelchairs to roughly 8,000 clients in the province. But critics say the wheelchair choices are both limited and ineffectual in winter conditions.

Otto's wheelchair has broken eight times in the past year and a half, and she regularly gets stuck in the snow.

"They aren't the nicest wheelchairs to be honest," Mankewich said. "They went for the economical ones as opposed to the best ones."

Peter Tonge, a Winnipeg lawyer who lives with cerebral palsy, agrees. He said almost every day that he heads to court, he too, gets stuck in snow or ice.

Or at least, that was when it still worked. It's been broken for almost a month now and he is still waiting for it to be repaired.

"So I had to rent another wheelchair, on my own dime, to get around," he said. "I'd be housebound if I didn't. And they have no idea when or even if it can be repaired."

That means Tonge, like Mankewich, must either come up with thousands of dollars to buy a better wheelchair on his own, or struggle with the ones that wheelchair services provides.

"It just speaks to some strange priorities," Mankewich said, noting that he once had health insurance through work that covered $1,000 of the costs towards an upgraded wheelchair.

"But it was a once-in-a-lifetime offer, that's it. Meanwhile they also offered coverage for limitless numbers of therapeutic massages. It makes no sense."

Tonge says the problem, in part, is because wheelchair services is the only show in town. There are no other service providers who distribute wheelchairs, so unless you can afford the price tag for a good one — which could run up to $50,000 — you're stuck with what you've got.

"I can't tell you how frustrating this is," he said. "This is a human right. This is an essential part of living independently."

The CBC has requested an interview with a spokesperson from the wheelchair services program. So far, they have not responded to those requests.

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