New study introduces wheelchairs to disabled children at a younger age

There are more than five-million kids living with disabilities in the United States.

Many times, their unique physical challenges keep them from competing with their peers in the classroom.

But what if kids could master a wheelchair before they even learn to read?

Little Owen Chaidez can't walk on his own. But that doesn't mean he can't get around.

Owen was born with arthrogryposis, a congenital disorder that limits movement of his joints and the function of his muscles.

"His right leg was on his left shoulder, left leg was twisted behind," explains Owen's mother Margaret.

Typically, two-year-olds like Owen aren't introduced to wheelchairs until years later. Margaret wanted to change that.

"That's what he started telling us, 'I'm not a baby. I'm a big kid now,'" Margaret explains.

She enrolled him in a study at Shriners Hospitals that is testing if toddlers as young as one can control powered wheelchairs.

"Normally-developing children start walking around a year of age, and if you look at a child with a disability or a spinal cord injury who may not have that ability, they're kind of behind from the get-go," says physical therapist Timothy Caruso.

Therapists teach kids the basics. Then they're scored on a series of driving tests.

They have learned that kids who suddenly become mobile improve their behavior and make higher intellectual gains compared to kids who depend on others to move.

The goal for Owen is to be an ace in the wheelchair by the time he starts school.

"I was so happy I wanted to cry, because you could just see his face change as soon as he did it," Margaret remembers.

He is a little boy who won't let anything get in the way of his independence.

If the study proves toddlers can safely operate powered wheelchairs, insurance companies are more likely to cover the cost for young children.

The Chicago Shriners Hospital study includes children between the ages of 12 and 30 months.



About 1.6 million Americans not in institutions use wheelchairs, according to data from the University of California, San Francisco Disability Statistics Center. Very few of these people are children. Only 0.1 percent of the population under 18 years of age uses wheelchairs.

Children may need the help of a wheelchair for many reasons. Among them are injuries to the legs, injuries to the spine, muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy. They may need a wheelchair for the short-term or permanently, and children can start using them when they're as young as 1 year old.

Whatever age they start, children in wheelchairs face more obstacles than those who don't depend on one to get around. However, with training and experience, kids who use wheelchairs can go to school, shop, play and eventually drive cars.


Thanks to advancements in technology, wheelchairs today are lighter, faster and easier to use than ever before. Many operate by computer technology and offer support for a person's back, neck, head and legs. Some kids may benefit from using a power wheelchair instead of a manual one.

Power wheelchairs feature electronic controllers, so a child can drive smoothly and brake easily. Some can be powered by puffing on a special straw or simply touching the controller.

When choosing a wheelchair for a child, parents have many options. Most wheelchairs fall into the following categories: standard, child/junior/growing, lightweight, sport, standing, reclining/tilt-in-space and transport.


Arthrogryposis describes a number of rare conditions that cause stiff joints and abnormal muscle development. Typically, patients with the non-progressive condition have shoulders that are internally rotated and adducted, elbows that are stiff in extension or flexion and wrists and fingers that are flexed. In some cases, the condition affects nearly every joint in the body, including the jaw and back.

According to the Children's Hospital Boston, the exact number of children the condition affects is unknown, but previous studies have estimated it to be one to three out of every 10,000 live births. For most types of arthrogryposis, physical and occupational therapy can help improve muscle strength, function and flexibility at the joints. Some cases require casting, splinting and surgery.

Since every case of arthrogryposis is different, the outlook varies widely.

For other medical research, visit Ivanhoe Broadcast News on the internet at

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