On March 22, Representative David Ortiz told the Colorado House Committee on Public & Behavioral Health & Human Services what his power wheelchair means to him. He explained the customization that went into his chair—it was carefully designed to support his shoulders, back, and head, for example, and to ensure that he doesn’t develop pressure sores after sitting in the same position for hours. “Suffice to say, it’s freedom, safety, and health all at once,” Ortiz said.

So when his power wheelchair breaks, getting it repaired quickly is paramount. Unfortunately, waiting for a fix from the wheelchair manufacturer’s service department can take a long time. Kenny Maestas, a legislative coordinator for the Colorado Cross Disability Coalition (CCDC), recalls waiting 60 days for a simple repair. “It was a nightmare scenario,” Maestas says of the weeks he spent without the medical device that gives him the mobility to take care of his son, do his job, and simply live his life.

Even if the fix is simple, such as changing a battery or replacing a tire’s inner tube, most wheelchair users can’t make the repair themselves (or hire a trusted repair-person), in part because they haven’t been given a manual or specialized tools. Some power wheelchairs even include a locking device that prevents the hardware or software from being tinkered with, and manufacturers currently aren’t required to hand out the corresponding key.

Giving wheelchair users the tools to make simple fixes is the aim of a “right to repair” bill currently working its way through the Colorado Legislature. HB22-1031, titled Consumer Right To Repair Powered Wheelchairs, would require manufacturers to provide parts, embedded software, firmware, diagnostic documentation, and more to consumers. The bill labels a manufacturer’s failure to do so a deceptive trade practice. It’s a companion bill to HB22-1290, which would remove some of the bureaucracy Medicaid recipients face when trying to repair their wheelchairs.

The right to repair movement has garnered attention in the past few years. In 2021, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) put together a report about anti-competition practices used by manufacturers that limit consumer options in repairing their devices. Lawmakers on the federal level filed two separate bills earlier this year that could make repairs more accessible (neither has moved out of committee), and President Joe Biden issued an executive order last year that, in part, asked the FTC to develop more regulations that would help independent repair shops compete against industry giants.

Developing those regulations will take time, though, which is part of the reason 27 states, Colorado included, have started trying to pass right to repair legislation on the state level.

Representative Brianna Titone, who is a co-sponsor of HB22-1031 along with Ortiz, tried for a wider-reaching right to repair bill last year called Consumer Digital Repair Bill Of Rights. That bill, HB21-1199, would have required makers of digital equipment like cell phones and tablets to provide consumers with the tools to fix their devices (including power wheelchairs). HB21-1199 was ultimately defeated after local entities, such as the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, as well as national groups like the Entertainment Software Association (the video game industry’s trade association) and argued they have the right to decide how consumers use their products.

This year, Titone decided to focus on a narrower group. “We didn’t have a lot of success fighting against all of the largest companies on Earth,” she says. Still, members of the wheelchair-making industry have come out against HB22-1031. Donald Clayback, president of the National Coalition for Assistive & Rehab Technology (a nonprofit organization of suppliers and manufacturers of Complex Rehab Technology products and services), testified at the hearing and reiterated Ortiz’s point that the chairs are complex, specially designed machines.

But, Clayback said, that just means “there’s a great deal of adjustment and technical knowledge that you need to repair this equipment. There are reasons we dispatch qualified technicians in the field to address those things, and that’s not just for the protection of the manufacturer, but more importantly the protection of the customer.”

Industry groups also worry that, should the bill become law, it would force them to reveal trade secrets. However, the bill specifies that trade secrets would not need to be disclosed to independent repair shops in order for a manufacturer to comply with the law.

Those in support of the bill, such as social services group CCDC and consumer advocacy organization Colorado Public Interest Research Group , disagree. “The industry acts like these chairs will blow up or something,” says JoyAnn Ruscha, director of government relations & grants and Arc Thrift Stores, one of the state’s largest employers of people with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, and many other disabilities. “But many disabled people, as well as those who love them, can operate a simple screwdriver.”

HB22-1031 was passed through the Committee on Public & Behavioral Health & Human Services, and then passed through the House, both times receiving bipartisan, though not unanimous, support. The fact that several Republicans voted for Titone’s bill is encouraging to the Democrat representing District 27. However, she knows she has a battle ahead of her: “The real test of acceptance will be in the Senate.”

Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil is a Denver-based journalist and 5280's former digital senior associate editor.