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Contemporary sociologists have coined a new term that's quickly changing the way cultural, economic, and social trends are identified early on: Microtrending.

Microtrending is fascinating because while major trends are clear as day - hybrid cars or music downloading, to name two obvious consumer trends - microtrends are social, cultural, political, or economic trends that are boiling below the surface, awaiting a catalyst to bring them to the forefront of mass awareness. And, if you're the person, business, or politician to spot the right microtrend at the right time, it can create astounding success.

A terrific example of microtrending in recent years has been the skyrocketing popularity of energy drinks. In the 21st century, bottled water has been king - we consumed 31 billion liters of bottled water in the U.S. during 2006. Meanwhile, beginning in around 2000, people started quietly buying "energy drinks," the antithesis of bottled water, containing three times the caffeine of a regular soda. While beverage industry analysts were still focused on bottled water market growth as a health-conscious trend, counter-intuitive consumers were soon buying up all of the bad-for-you energy drinks that they could get their hands on. Of course, once giants like Pepsi and Coca-Cola caught onto the microtrend of energy drinks, it became a defined market force, to which sales are projected at $10 billion annually by 2010.

Interestingly, a microtrend has been occurring in the U.S. among those with disabilities, where an upsurge of those needing wheelchairs and scooters have been creating change through a movement that might be best labeled as "mobility consumerism." And, make no mistake, this small force is set to create big cultural changes in the coming decades.

It used to be that wheelchairs were an entirely prescribed "medical device" - you went to the doctor, he prescribed a wheelchair, it was ordered by a therapist, and then you likely went to a clinic to receive it. However, as the 1980s and 1990s progressed, "patients" slowly began turning into "consumers," becoming more savvy toward not only their own health care, but also toward their wheelchair purchases. Part of this was due to the expansion of the independent living movement, where those with disabilities took more control over all aspects of their lives, including their mobility. And, part of it was due to the evolution of mobility products, where consumers with disabilities saw their peers with better-performing, aesthetically-pleasing mobility products, and wanted one, too, seeking out particular models rather than simply accepting what was prescribed.

However, this subtle shift on the part of individual consumers didn't gain any mass movement until around 1999 and 2000, when the Internet was taking hold among American households. Suddenly, those with disabilities had unparalleled access to both information and each other - the two tools needed to take mobility consumerism to the next level.

Over the past eight years, "mobility consumerism" has blossomed into an unquestionable microtrend, driven no less in very recent years by insurer funding cuts that have all but required that those with disabilities take an active role in ensuring that their mobility needs are met with appropriate products. Sure, there's still a segment of those with disabilities who don't give a second thought to the wheelchairs that they receive and use. Yet, the trend toward mobility consumerism - where those with disabilities research, collaborate, choose, and even fund their own mobility products - is a force that continues gaining momentum, as shown by distinct areas of growth and focus within the mobility marketplace.

From an obvious perspective, the phenomenal growth of WheelchairJunkie.com finds itself at the epicenter of mobility consumerism, where during 2007, the site had over 3 million page views, with new members registering daily, frequently with over 200 visitors on the message board at one time - such popularity is unmistakable. Yet, WheelchairJunkie.com, as a single website, doesn't exemplify a microtrend on its own.

What proves mobility consumerism as a microtrend are the increasing number of additional websites and businesses catering to mobility consumerism. If you log onto the websites of TiLite, Quantum Rehab, or Permobil, it's strikingly clear that they're focused on consumer-oriented content. These companies demonstrate that they recognize that wheelchairs are no longer merely prescribed by doctors, but chosen by consumers - and their marketing departments seek to connect with consumers, accordingly.

Similarly, open any disability publication these days - Quest, New Mobility, Sports 'N' Spokes - and you'll see full-page glossy ads of mobility products that look like they're right out of Road & Track magazine. Manufacturers understand that, for an increasing number of consumers with disabilities, the same consumer eye that might be applied to a car or computer purchase is now applied to wheelchair selection. This advertising trend, in itself, demonstrates the growing factor of mobility consumerism, where manufacturers seek not only to serve necessity, but also cater to consumers' wants.

Certainly, mobility consumerism doesn't stop at increased demand for product information. A sustained number of shop-online websites like SpinLife, SportAid, and 1-800-Wheelchair, to name a few mobility retailers, show that many with disabilities are skipping the traditional supply chain model altogether, looking for the best price online, paying out-of-pocket for a mobility product that they've chosen on their own.

Interestingly, however, the online retailing of mobility products plays a smaller part in the overall microtrend of mobility consumerism than some might think. Rather than causing mobility consumerism, online retailers are merely a symptom of it - and that's an important distinction. Consumers seeking their own path toward mobility products create demand, and that in itself creates a marketplace for online direct retailers. In this way, it's consumers driving the market, not the market driving consumers, again demonstrating mobility consumerism as a microtrend.

If it's clear that mobility consumerism is an unquestionable microtrend - an upsurging market force boiling just below the surface - then what's the catalyst that's going to take it to the next level, where mobility consumerism becomes so mainstream that it's simply consumerism?

The answer is, population.

The ultimate reason why the microtrend of mobility consumerism has occurred is because of an increased consumer awareness of mobility products, fostered by necessity - and awareness and necessity continue increasing. The microtrend of mobility consumerism is snowballing day by day as we head toward 2030, with the aging population needing and seeking mobility products at a scale never before seen.

Surely, those with profound disabilities started mobility consumerism by discussing rehab products amongst each other and online, fostering an initial demand for more consumer information, and an expansion of exercising personal preference toward mobility product purchases - especially mindful due to funding cuts that have the potential to restrict one's mobility. Then, as recent years  have progressed, we've seen the tech-savvy baby boomers joining the movement, seeking consumer information about mobility products for their parents and themselves, increasingly open to self-funding such purchases, rounding out mobility consumerism as a microtrend. And, now it's just a matter of time before the educated, consumer-minded seniors of tomorrow - projected as a 75% increase in those 65 and older between 2010 and 2030, to the tune of 69 million individuals - create the paradigm shift from mobility consumerism as a microtrend, to mobility products as mainstream items. When this shift occurs - namely relating to light-rehab products like scooters, compact power wheelchairs, and manual wheelchairs - its impact won't just be one of socioeconomics fostered by the aging population, but a cultural change, as well, effecting all with disabilities. As a result, much like the independent living movement has helped foster mobility consumerism as a microtrend in the present, mobility products as mainstream items for the aging population will foster the next wave of the destigmatization of disability within our culture at large - and that shift will increase disability awareness and acceptance for those of all ages.

Unquestionably, in both the rehab and light-rehab markets, the microtrend of mobility consumerism is having an effect on the mobility market, increasing information, uniting consumers, and empowering the decisions of individuals toward mobility product purchases. Nevertheless, as the current microtrend suggests, once mobility consumerism reaches the mainstream, fueled by the aging population, its impact will be much more profound: A dramatic shift in the way that we, as a culture, view disability, further destigmatizing mobility products and hopefully opening the door to complete social inclusion for all with disabilities.

Published 2/08, Copyright 2008, WheelchairJunkie.com