Oft-Scorned Segway Finds Friends Among the Disabled
RING quietly down the sidewalk on East 42nd Street and into a Starbucks one recent afternoon, Chandler Hovey drew looks and comments from passers-by.
What was most eye-catching was his means of transport: the Segway Human Transporter, a two-wheeled, gyroscopically balanced electric scooter. What was less evident, except to those close enough to spot the blue handicapped symbol on his scooter, was that he is disabled.
Mr. Hovey, 63, a money manager, has multiple sclerosis. For almost 18 months, his Segway has regularly transported him the roughly 30 blocks from his home to his office. When he is not using the Segway to dart around Manhattan, Mr. Hovey uses a cane, which he hangs on the scooter's handlebars, to help him maneuver around daily obstacles. But on the Segway, he appears as able-bodied as those he is passing by.
"Instead of being at fire hydrant height, you're at human being height," he said of many users. Several hundred people nationwide are using Segways to cope with disabilities like scoliosis and arthritis and even missing limbs, according to a group called Disability Rights Advocates for Technology, or Draft, which is promoting such use. Like Mr. Hovey, many have disabilities serious enough to require assistance with walking, but not a wheelchair.
The Segway, which has been generally available since early last year, is not approved (or marketed) for use as a medical device. And it has drawn opposition and even legislation in some cities over concern that its use on sidewalks endangers pedestrians. But that has not deterred disabled riders willing to pay $3,000 or more - a cost not usually covered by medical insurance.
Leonard Timm, an above-the-knees double amputee and a co-founder of Draft, said his group estimated the ranks of disabled Segway users nationwide at 400 to 600. Often, he said, they are using the Segway along with another device, like a cane, wheelchair or a sit-down power scooter.
Mr. Timm modified his Segway to incorporate a wooden seat he built that enables him to sit while riding. He is working on a new aluminum seat.
Disabled Segway riders cite health benefits like improved digestion and circulation. While their overall energy might not improve, some say they can now concentrate their efforts on things other than struggling to walk.
Thomas Cloke, a 60-year-old machinist from Taylor, Mich., with arthritis, said the scooter makes him less dependent on his family. "I can take care of myself because of the Segway," he said.
For some, the Segway is more comfortable than a wheelchair, and it helps those with balance problems stay upright.
"It's just this incredible feeling for those that cannot balance and when they stand up they feel like they're in the midst of falling all the time," said Jerry Kerr of St. Louis, a Segway rider with a spinal cord injury that left him unable to walk, though he can stand to operate the scooter.
There is also a psychological factor. Mr. Kerr said he is no longer relegated to staring at people's rear ends, while others said they simply feel less disabled while riding it.
Despite standing taller and whizzing instead of stepping, the disabled do not draw as much attention to themselves on the Segway as they would otherwise, Mr. Kerr said.
"There are people whose disabilities are rendered almost invisible by using the Segway," he said. "People who have been in wheelchairs for 20 years, people look at them and don't know they're disabled."
But for those who have trouble walking on their own, that is not always a good thing.
Kristin Hartman, 39, who sets up Web sites at the University of California, Los Angeles, and trains faculty members to use them, has multiple sclerosis and uses a Segway to get around the campus and neighboring Westwood Village. She has a handicapped sticker on her scooter, but if people don't notice it or her disability, she might get a nasty comment from passers-by who think she is just lazy, she said. Most comments she and others get, however, tend to be positive.
Draft encourages users to identify their disabled status on their Segways, as many do with a blue wheelchair sticker. Mr. Kerr displays a handicapped placard on his Segway, but said many people are loath to do so.
To reduce anxiety over the prospect of being stopped from riding, some disabled Segway riders carry a doctor's note with them, explaining how the scooters help them.
Riders said they are rarely stopped or forbidden from using their Segways in public spaces or businesses. Indeed, Mr. Hovey was able to ride his scooter right into Starbucks and up to the counter to order a drink. Ms. Hartman said she's never been barred anywhere, although she was asked not to ride in a Las Vegas hotel where she was staying. Mr. Kerr has been stopped at Miami and Los Angeles hotels.
The Segway actually shares an inventor, Dean Kamen, with another mobility-assisting device for the disabled: the stair-climbing iBOT wheelchair. But while Johnson & Johnson, under exclusive license, markets the iBOT specifically to disabled users, Segway, the company behind the scooter, has no plans to do likewise.
Carla Vallone, a Segway spokeswoman, said that while the Segway is built to the same medical device standards as the iBOT, it is not a medical device. Unlike the iBOT, it has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a device for disabled users, and so may not be marketed as such, she said.
"It's sort of like an unsought market for us at this point - a market we did not seek to retain or build, but it has come about on its own," Ms. Vallone said.
As a broader skirmish continues over whether and where to permit Segway use, the issue of whether disabled riders have any special right to use the scooters has not yet been resolved.
Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, public places and businesses have to meet certain standards of accessibility that accommodate disabled visitors. Such places must allow disabled visitors to use aids like canes or wheelchairs, said Paul Steven Miller, a disability law expert and law professor at the University of Washington.
But with two wheels, the Segway doesn't fit into the definition followed by the United States Department of Transportation in implementing the Americans With Disabilities Act, which refers to a three- or four-wheeled vehicle, said Bob Ashby, a lawyer with the agency's general counsel's office.
The department has yet to form an opinion on Segway use, he said.
Cities can bar general use of motorized vehicles on sidewalks or in public places, he said, but would have legal problems under the disabilities act and state laws if they closed those spaces to people with motorized wheelchairs.
Segway says 41 states have laws allowing the use of the scooters on sidewalks, but some cities, like San Francisco, have gone as far as banning nondisabled riders from using the scooters in public places and at bus and train stops.
In New York City, the Segway falls into a gray area, said Councilman John C. Liu, a Queens Democrat who is chairman of the Transportation Committee. Mr. Liu said that a rider using one in public could get a ticket, because state law prohibits motorized vehicles - except those like wheelchairs and three- and four-wheeled scooters for the disabled - on sidewalks.
Still, "I think certainly that ticket would be contestable," he said.
For now, Mr. Hovey and many others will just keep on riding. "My life depends on that darn thing," he said
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