Users of wheeled mobility devices were surveyed to gather information about how they have used portable ramps, problems they have encountered while using portable ramps and their overall perception of portable ramps. A total of twenty five users who own portable ramps and twenty eight users who do not currently own a portable ramp responded to an online, web based survey designed to gather information. The goal was to identify areas in current ramp designs in need of improvement and to gain an understanding of factors that may prevent users from purchasing portable ramps. Overall, portable ramp owners are pleased with their ramps but a large percentage of owners use their ramps only rarely. Non-owners had the same expectations about portable ramps as owners, but cited cost as the main factor that prevented them from owning one. Design issues included noise during transportation, pinch points on folding ramps, slippage during use and reduced performance in wet or icy weather. Most portable ramps also do not provide user’s manuals or warnings to encourage proper use.
Portable ramp, wheeled mobility, design, marketing
Portable ramps can be divided into several broad classes: single ramps, folding ramps, telescoping ramps, track ramps and rollup ramps. They can be constructed from a wide range of materials though most new ramps tend to be made of aluminum to be stong and lightweight. Though they may come in many sizes and have different combinations of features, little research has been performed specifically on portable ramps to examine how they are used and effective they are. Reviewing literature on the subject revealed only a single study focusing on issues specific to portable ramp usage. A study in the Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development (JRRD) in 2004 by Tim Stgorr [(1)] examined various design features of portable ramps and their effects on curb and vehicle access. Even though it was a controlled laboratory study, a number of potential issues and problems were identified. These included movement or sliding of ramps while they were being used, incompatibility or insecure connections with some vehicle thresholds, casters jamming in track ramps and that most ramps did not provide instructions or safety warnings.
A web based survey was created to gather data related to the usage and perceptions of portable ramps. The study focused specifically on wheeled mobility users; care givers were not included. It was designed to collect data from both owners of portable ramps and users that do not own portable ramps. The survey was hosted on servers at the Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access (CATEA) at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The users that were asked to participate in the survey were primarily selected from the CATEA Consumer Network (CCN). The CCN is a network of users with disabilities, family members, caregivers and others who have expressed interested in taking part in surveys, field trials, and other studies conducted at CATEA. Other users invited to participate were drawn from the Shepherd Center; a rehabilitation hospital in Atlanta, Georgia that specializes in spinal cord injuries, brain injuries and other neurological conditions; and from disABILITY Link, a center for independent living in Decatur, Georgia.
Initially, 816 users were sent an email invitation to participate. These were mainly CCN users who were users of wheeled mobility devices. Users from the Shepherd Center and disABILITY link who had participated in previous studies at CATEA were also included in the first invitation. Two weeks later, an additional 70 users from the CCN were invited to participate. Each of these was a CCN member who indicated that they had difficulty walking and who had not been included in the initial email invitation. The survey was active for about five weeks from October 25 – November 30, 2006.
Most survey questions were presented with multiple choice selections. The questions and choices available were gathered from a number of sources. The ‘Consumer Requirements for Assistive Devices: Information for Product Development/ Improvement’ [(2)] from the RERC-TET (Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Technology Evaluation Transfer) was a helpful in formulating questions on how a product can be improved. Questions related to ramp types and prices were gathered from multiple online vendors of portable ramps [(3),(4),(5)]. Online discussion forums [(6),(7)] were also helpful in gaining insight into current issues and problems with portable ramps. These sources, along with other literature [(8)], helped in formulating the survey questions. The survey also offered many opportunities for users to provide typed feedback. All of the materials and procedures for this study were reviewed and approved by the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Institutional Review Board.
Portable ramp owners who responded to the survey, on average, agreed that their overall experience with portable ramps was good (an average score of 2 out of 5 where 1 is best and 5 is worst). All of the portable ramp attributes in the survey were also scored well above neutral. About half spent more than $250 on their ramp and regardless of price paid, most owners (80%) paid for it with personal funds.
Some issues that stand out from the data are that most ramps do not seem to provide any warranty. More than half of the owners (52%) also indicated that their ramp did not come with a user’s manual. Perhaps because of this, nearly half also did not know what the maximum safe load capacity of their ramp. More than a quarter of owners reported that some sort of injury has occurred at some point while using the ramp. It is also interesting to note that 68% of owners spent only one week or less researching options before purchasing their ramp.
For respondents who do not own portable ramps, the survey gathered information on their past experiences with portable ramps and their current opinions about them. Three of the questions were asked to both owners and non-owners so that they could be compared. Some variation in non-owners’ expectations compared to owners’ experiences was expected before the data was gathered. Instead, the expectations of non-owners matched remarkably well with owners’ responses. Non-owners ranked factors they considered important when planning to purchase a portable ramp (such as cost, reliability, safety features, etc) the same as owners. Non-owners expected to that they would use a portable ramp in the same ways a owners reported actually using them. The frequency that they reported that the ramp would likely be used matched very closely with the frequency with which owners reported using their ramps. With so many important factors between owners and non-owners being almost the same, what prevents other users from becoming owners?
Non owners indicated overwhelmingly that this factor was price. 71% said that they were too expensive and 53% said that they were not covered by their insurance. 53% also indicated that they felt that they were too cumbersome. Many non-owners also submitted additional comments reinforcing this. They indicated that while portable ramps seemed to be useful, they simply cost too much. Two users even commented that they would be interested in a portable ramp if the cost was less.
One unexpected result is the frequency that ramp owners actually use their ramps. Nearly half of portable ramp owners (44%) use their ramp less than one time per week. Owners that reported this had spent various amounts on their ramps, some more than $800 and some less than $100. The average satisfaction level of this group of owners was also similar to owners who utilized their ramps more frequently. Unfortunately, the reason for this seemingly low utilization is not clear from the data gathered. Even though the actual usage matches closely with how often non-owners expect to use a portable ramp, why do some owners make a large investment in a device that is used only rarely? Further investigation into this question might reveal needs that are not being met by existing ramp designs. If portable ramps can be made more useful to current owners, it will help to better meet needs and help to make the cost to benefit ratio more attractive to non-owners.
The largest design issues with current ramps were revealed by participant comments. First, a number of users reported that pinch points were a problem. Folding style ramps were the most popular with owners surveyed, and while any folding type ramp will always have these; improving designs to find ways to eliminate them or keep fingers away from these areas would be a big benefit to users. Many users also reported that their ramps were very noisy when being transported. Features to keep portable ramps from rattling in vehicles would seem obvious, but for many ramps such a feature seems either to not work well or not exist at all.
Two of the worst ranked attributes by owners were that the ramp sometimes slipped or moved while in use and that their performance was not always good in wet or icy conditions. Many comments left by participants indicated that non-ideal conditions ramps could become unstable or did not stay secured to obstacles. Even in ideal conditions, movement of the ramp while in use was reported by many users. The comments and lower user rankings indicate a need for better design to improve stability (in good and bad conditions) as well as better mechanisms for making more secure, stable connections with a wide range of obstacles.
Perhaps the most important issue found is that most ramps do not provide proper documentation. This includes manuals as well as clear and understandable warnings on the ramp itself. No single ramp is likely to fit every situation or need. Most people may assume that the way to use a ramp is obvious and a lack of instructions can easily lead to unintended and dangerous misuse. It is important to be sure users are made aware of the situations and condition where using the ramp might be unsafe.
A number of areas for potential design improvements for portable ramps were identified in this study. Designs that improve stability in ideal and non-ideal conditions, ways to better connect and secure ramps to obstacles, ways to reduce noise during transportation and reduction of pinch points in folding ramps would improve safety and increase overall satisfaction. Most ramps do not provide manuals or visible warnings, a situation which could be easily addressed. While non-owners have realistic expectations of how they would utilize a portable ramp, they consider ramps too expensive. Finally, the low frequency of portable ramp use reported by so many owners suggests that there may be unmet user needs or other unknown issues that require further investigation.
Almost all of the users who participated in the survey provided additional and detailed comments. This seems to indicate a desire of both owners and non-owners to see improvements in portable ramps. Since most wheelchair users will encounter a portable ramp at some point, a desire to see better safety and usability is not surprising. Further studies involving users to find design solutions to some of the outstanding issues with portable ramps could be very beneficial to the users and makers of portable ramps alike.
Young Mi Choi, M.A., M.S.
Georgia Institute of Technology
College of Architecture, Industrial Design
Center for Assistive Technology & Environmental Access (CATEA)
Georgia Institute of Technology
490 Tenth Street, NW
Atlanta, GA 30332
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