The View from My Seat archives


Published September 17, 2019


Wheelchair power controllers don’t fare well in the pool

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

As soon as I hit the water, I knew I had goofed.

One look at my right wrist confirmed it. I was still wearing my wristband. Not any old wristband, but the wristband with the Bluetooth wireless connection that controls the SmartDrive power assist device on my wheelchair.

I had been proud of myself that for two years I had remembered to take off my wristband and hearing aids before pool therapy. That streak came to a soaked ending.

The SmartDrive device has been a life-changer for me. It has given me the freedom to move.

The SmartDrive can power me up hills and through thick carpets. Or it can take over when I am too tired to roll myself.

It is different than a bulkier power wheelchair in that the light-weight device simply attaches to my manual wheelchair.

I control it from the Bluetooth connection on my wrist. All I have to do is double tap the wheel with the wristband, and the wheelchair picks up speed. One more tap, and I coast at the current speed and then double-tap again to stop.

The technology is almost magical, except when a key component has been taken for a swim.

I knew there was almost no chance of the Bluetooth connection surviving my dip in the pool. I took it home and let it dry out. No luck. I needed to order a new wristband. Meanwhile, I would have to power the wheelchair the old-fashioned way, with my arms.

Using a manual wheelchair isn’t easy. From the time I first needed a wheelchair seven years ago, I was warned by therapists that wheelchair life is hard on shoulders. They need care.

My shoulders were already in trouble. Throwing too many curveballs left-handed as a teen and playing tennis right-handed as an adult, (I don’t know how that happened,) meant both shoulders were damaged. I had undergone surgery once and winced through numerous injections.

My shoulders finally gave out after a couple years in the wheelchair. It became painful to roll the wheelchair. I stayed home more and more and avoided activities requiring rolling long distances.

With the help of my therapists and doctors, I was able to get the SmartDrive. It powers me up the ramp into my van, makes going to the store in 100-degree heat almost bearable and allows me to keep up with the grandkids.

The SmartDrive does have some minor drawbacks. Users need to remember that both the power device that attaches to the wheelchair and the wristband need to be charged. That is no problem for organized people, but don’t include me in that group.
Also, the devices need to be turned off when not in use. I have had near misses when the wheelchair unexpectedly took off after I forgot to turn the power off and accidentally tapped the wheel.

I am not sure how, but it has also taken off several times without me. My wife has had to retrieve my chair from the other side of the room.

A major drawback is the $7,000 cost. Insurance will help defray the costs if you can get a prescription from a doctor or therapist stating that a current condition limits independent mobility.

Fortunately, the wristband is only a small percentage of the overall cost, and by the time you read this column, I will have a new working wristband … unless I goof up again.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at