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In Colorado, users of powered wheelchairs can now make repairs themselves


Advances in tech have made it easier than ever to fix certain devices, but some manufacturers still block customers from repairing products on their own. Three states have now pushed back, enacting so-called right-to-repair laws. Colorado Public Radio's Andrew Kenney has the story of one powered wheelchair user who is among the first to use that state's new law.


ANDREW KENNEY, BYLINE: Bruce Goguen, who's 68, has used his powered wheelchair for so long that it feels like an extension of himself. He has multiple sclerosis, which affects his speech.

BRUCE GOGUEN: I just think of it as legs, as being my legs.

KENNEY: And that means when he got a new chair last year, every detail had to be right, like the speed of its different modes. His wife, Robin Bolduc, says each one of those adjustments required a visit from an authorized technician. It took weeks.

ROBIN BOLDUC: We would have to call someone, make an appointment, have them come out and say, gee, I'd like to change it so we're walking just a little bit faster.

KENNEY: On one of those visits, Robin realized that the technician wasn't using some specialized device to change the settings. It was a smartphone app. She even found it on the App Store, but it was only available for authorized users.

BOLDUC: Well, I want the app. And he was like, you can't have the app. But I want the app.

KENNEY: That would've been the end of the road, except that Robin and Bruce knew that Colorado's new wheelchair right-to-repair law had just gone into effect. Representative Brianna Titone is the sponsor of the new law. Back in 2021, she originally proposed a much broader bill that would've applied to computers, cellphones and more. That meant an uphill fight against lobbyists for everything from hospitals to tech giants.

BRIANNA TITONE: So I did not win that fight. I lost that fight pretty bad. So that's why the following year, we pared it back to the people who really deserve to have this right. And that were the people who were in wheelchairs.

TITONE: The narrower, wheelchair-focused law passed the legislature last year with the help of advocates like Bruce and Robin. Once it went into effect on New Year's Day, Robin called the manufacturer to demand access to their app.

BOLDUC: They were not prepared - right? - which - understandably. We're the only state. And it was Day 1, right? So they were not prepared.

KENNEY: In a committee hearing last year, Tonya Hammatt of National Seating and Mobility, a wheelchair vendor, warned state lawmakers that power wheelchairs are too complex for DIY jobs.


TONYA HAMMATT: This bill will allow anyone to perform complex repairs to power wheelchairs, which may lead to negative outcomes for the end user.

KENNEY: But after Robin showed Bruce's wheelchair's maker the text of the law, they agreed, sending out two staffers to get the family set up with the internal software.

BOLDUC: They gave me the code to get into the app. We played around. We programmed.

KENNEY: The couple have been tweaking the wheelchair's different modes, searching for the perfect speed for Robin to jog alongside Bruce or the right settings for a steep walking trail.

GOGUEN: Yeah, it's wonderful. Yeah, it's very wonderful.

KENNEY: And their success could have broader effects. They've been told the manufacturer is working on a public-facing app for everyone else who wants to use it. The company didn't respond to a request for comment. Meanwhile, right-to-repair laws are gaining momentum around the country, says Kevin O'Reilly of the advocacy group PIRG.

KEVIN O'REILLY: We think that this first bill was the crack in the dam that we needed.

KENNEY: That includes a new bill from Representative Titone that guarantees similar rights for farmers to repair their increasingly high-tech tractors and other equipment. It's poised to clear the state legislature in a matter of weeks. For NPR News, I'm Andrew Kenney.


Andrew Kenney