After he got his new powered wheelchair last year, Bruce Goguen found he needed to make some adjustments.
The tweaks were small — things like fine-tuning the travel speed in the device’s various modes and changing how quickly it responds to button presses. But getting them right was important, because Goguen’s chair is like an extension of his body.
“I just think of it as legs, just being my legs,” he explained in a recent interview at his house.
It turned out those seemingly simple changes weren’t so simple to make. Each new tweak required a visit from an authorized technician. Because of manufacturers’ restrictive repair rules, some wheelchair users have had to wait weeks for fixes large and small.
For Goguen’s wife, Robin Bolduc, booking appointments for minor adjustments was frustrating.
“We would have to 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,” explained Bolduc.
During those visits, the couple noticed something interesting. The technician wasn’t using a specialized device to make the changes. It was a smartphone app. Bolduc wanted access.
“I had been asking for the app for quite a long time,” Bolduc said. But she couldn’t download the software, which was meant only for employees of the manufacturer and authorized vendors.
The couple, however, had a card to play. They’ve been involved in disability advocacy for decades — they actually met at a protest in the 1990s. They like to say that fighting for change together is the foundation of their marriage.
“You don’t say no to a Jersey girl,” Goguen jokes about his wife.
Most recently, their activism took them to the state capitol, where they lobbied for the passage of Colorado’s new “wheelchair right to repair” law. It guarantees that powered wheelchair owners can get access to parts, tools and even software — such as smartphone apps — from wheelchair manufacturers.
Passed last year, it is only the second right-to-repair law in the country, and it was the first focused on wheelchairs. The policy went into effect with the start of this year — and Robin wasted no time calling the manufacturer.
“It was the Monday after Jan. 1,” Bolduc said. “I was like, ‘I want the app.’”
That call likely makes them the first people to exercise their new rights under the Colorado law— and, in a way, put them at the forefront of a national right-to-repair movement that goes far beyond wheelchairs.
“That's the only person who I know of that's done it so far,” said state Rep. Brianna Titone, the prime sponsor of the law. “I mean, we’re only [three months] into it.”
From wheelchairs to tractors
Titone first started working on right-to-repair laws soon after she was elected in 2018. Gov. Jared Polis had first suggested the idea to her, knowing that Titone is a technology buff, she said.
She started off big — introducing a wide-ranging bill in 2021 that would have applied to any kind of “digital electronic equipment,” a term that would cover practically all modern devices. Lobbyists for everything from hospitals to tech giants lined up to oppose it.
“I did not win that fight. I lost that fight pretty bad,” Titone said in a recent interview. The proposal was defeated by a 12-1 vote in its first committee.
The following year, Titone changed strategies, narrowing her efforts to only address powered wheelchairs.
People who use wheelchairs spoke at committee hearings about waiting weeks for simple repairs — delays that could leave them in dangerous, bedridden situations. Bolduc described having to buy third-party parts off eBay because the wait for an authorized repair was too long.
“It was kind of the underground,” she said. Federal law already guarantees that people can repair devices without voiding the warranty — but that protection doesn’t necessarily apply if a third-party part causes a problem. And some manufacturers have clamped down on independent repairs by using digital controls to lock out third parties and limiting the supply of parts and tools.
Despite protests from the industry, the new law passed in 2022.
The new Colorado law guarantees that individuals can buy those parts, tools and software at a reasonable price from the manufacturer. The hope is that it will empower both DIY repairs and independent repair shops.
“I have the right to walk into an auto parts store and buy components for my car,” said Matt Didsbury, the vendor who sold Goguen’s wheelchair. “Why shouldn't somebody who has a piece of equipment … be able to acquire that necessary repair item as soon as possible? Why should we delay that for them as well?”
The narrower wheelchair-focused law was still a big deal for the right-to-repair movement. It was only the second law of its kind in the U.S., following an earlier one in Massachusetts that focused on automobiles.
After last year’s victory, Titone decided to keep going. In the current legislative session, she’s taking on another type of very specialized and expensive technology — agriculture equipment. Her bill is meant to make it easier for farmers and independent shops to do repairs on increasingly high-tech tractors, combines and more.
That’s a much bigger industry than wheelchairs, but so far the bill has sailed through the legislature — it’s passed both chambers and now awaits a conference committee to iron out final differences between the House and Senate versions.
Kevin O’Reilly is working on a national right-to-repair campaign with the advocacy group PIRG and believes Colorado’s incremental steps could have national implications.
“We think that this first bill was the crack in the dam that we needed,” he said.
He said state-level right-to-repair laws pressure industries to revise their policies more broadly. For example, the earlier Massachusetts law later led the auto industry to make nationwide policy changes. John Deere has similarly signed a memorandum of understanding as it tries to defuse pressure on the agricultural equipment industry.
Meanwhile, manufacturer groups warn that opening up complex machines for repairs could be costly and even risky for users.
“If someone’s repairing that equipment, they’ve been trained, they know what to do, they have the right insurance in place,” said Don Clayback, executive director for the National Coalition For Assistive & Rehab Technology, which represents wheelchair manufacturers, in committee testimony last year.
“This would really open up the marketplace to people who, in our mind, are unqualified,” he added.
There’s an app for that
So far, this new access has worked out for Goguen and Bolduc. First, they presented the chair’s manufacturer, Pride Mobility, with the text of the law.
“They were not prepared — which, understandably, we’re the only state and it was day one, right?” Bolduc said with a laugh.
In fact, a Pride Mobility representative had previously testified against the creation of the law, warning that wheelchairs are complex machines that require careful care. Even simple-seeming adjustments could cause one to tip over, injuring the user.
“We can program pieces of equipment out of stability, where you could be driving and actually roll over backwards,” said Didsbury, the vendor. “Initially, [the manufacturer] was pretty concerned.”
But within just two weeks, the manufacturer agreed to grant access to the smartphone app that technicians use to adjust the device. They even dispatched two employees, along with the vendor, to help the family get started.
“They gave me the code to get into the app. We played around, we programmed,” Bolduc said.
Since then, they’ve tweaked the wheelchair’s different modes — searching for the perfect speed for Bolduc to jog alongside Goguen, or the right settings for him to navigate a steep walking trail.
“It's wonderful. It's very wonderful,” Goguen said.
And while his family had to request special access to the app, that might change. The manufacturer is working on a public version specifically for consumers like them, Didsbury said. Pride Mobility did not respond to a request for comment.
Word is spreading about the law, according to Didsbury. Some customers have started buying their own parts from manufacturers, and he expects more to make their own repairs.
He thinks there will be complications — what happens to someone’s insurance if they do a faulty DIY repair? But he’s glad that clients will have more independence.
Julie Reiskin is the co-executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, and a longtime family friend of the Goguen-Bolducs. It was heartening to hear about their success, she said — but it’s frustrating to have to fight for basic rights. And she worried that many other wheelchair users haven’t ever heard about the new law.
“It's great to have a law, but if no one knows about it, no one knows how to use it — what good does it do?” she said. “We wanna see this information made really widely available.”
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