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As a teenager, I mostly listened to punk rock music, and one of my favorite records in my collection was Punk's Not Dead by The Exploited. The Exploited's album was a direct reaction to the music critics of circa 1980 proclaiming, "Punk is dead," that new-wave and synthesizer pop were the genres taking over the airwaves. Of course, The Exploited demonstrated through the success of their seminal album that the critics were wrong, that punk wasn't dead. The lesson learned was to never try to kill a genre before its fans say when.

Here we sit in 2008, and a similar undercurrent continues rumbling beneath the surface of the mobility market, where some see rear-wheel drive as an antiquated, long-gone technology, while others state its everlasting validity, proclaiming, Rear-Wheel Drive's Not Dead, Man! But, no matter the varied opinions, what's the true state of rear-wheel-drive power wheelchair technology in today's market?

Make no mistake, we now live in a mid- and center-wheel drive culture in North America, and for good reason: Mid- and center-wheel drive power wheelchairs simply offer an outstanding balance of indoor and outdoor performance, proving an amazingly liberating mobility platform for most. Mid- and center-wheel drive power wheelchairs turn in the tightest spaces, offer utmost stability, and climb obstacles - these have been embraced as meaningful mobility traits by most power wheelchair consumers. As a result, there's no question that mid- and center-wheel drive (including front-wheel drive), all but define the power wheelchair market in North America today.

Of course, the market shift from rear-wheel drive as an industry standard, to mid- and center-wheel drive as the present industry standard, occurred relatively quickly by mobility technology time lines - around 8 years - and many were well aware of the significant technological shift taking place.  In fact, a bold statement was made in an industry publication about five years ago, where a mobility industry representative declared that "rear-wheel drive was dead." But, as we sit here in 2008, is such a grim statement ultimately true?

It depends on your perspective, and who you ask. Again, the mainstream mobility market unquestionably demonstrates that rear-wheel-drive products are now only a small fraction of the power wheelchairs sold today, to the point where a provider recently told me that she couldn't recall the last time anyone asked for a rear-wheel-drive model. The market overwhelmingly demands mid- and center-wheel drive technologies, and most consumers won't even consider rear-wheel drive as an option anymore. Therefore, if one looks strictly at the overwhelming shift in demand in the North-American market from rear-wheel drive to mid- and center-wheel drives during recent years, it looks an awful lot like rear-wheel drives are definitely struggling to survive, if not "dead" in the grand scope of market demand.

Yet, consumers continue buying rear-wheel drives to at least some volume, to where every major manufacturer still offers one rear-wheel-drive model, if not several, to retain sales in that market segment. And, it's this fact that others point to as proof that rear-wheel-drive technology remains commercially viable - that is, some people still buy rear-wheel drive power wheelchairs, keeping it a small but profitable market.

Therefore, while the mobility market as a whole has moved away from rear-wheel-drive technology, dictated by consumers preferring mid- and center-wheel drive, there remains a valid market fueled by consumers who still seek rear-wheel-drive technology. In everyday terms, then, it's easy to see that while market demand for rear-wheel drives has dramatically dwindled in recent years, it remains a valuable mobility technology for some, proving that rear-wheel drive's not dead.

Nevertheless, with market demand sharply decreasing for rear-wheel drives, some consumers have expressed fear that the technology may soon disappear entirely, where all manufacturers will simply stop selling rear-wheel drives. The reality is, there's little chance of an entire loss of rear-wheel drive in the coming years, namely due to remaining consumer demand.

Firstly, there are many consumers in their 30s, 40s, and 50s who have used rear-wheel-drive power wheelchairs their whole lives, and truly have no interest in switching to mid- or center-wheel drive, regardless of the benefits. With these consumers creating demand, manufacturer will continue selling rear-wheel-drive power wheelchairs as long as there are consumers buying them - it's a supply-and-demand economy at work.

Secondly, much of Europe remains a largely rear-wheel-drive market, where consumers and clinicians haven't been as quick to adopt newer power mobility technologies (it's a cultural difference where many seem more comfortable using long-known technology rather than taking what they perceive as risks on newer technologies). As a result, global power wheelchair manufacturers continue innovating rear-wheel-drive products for Europe, developments that will likely flow to the North-American market, as well, to serve consumer demand as long as the rear-wheel-drive segment sustains sales.

In these ways, while the popularity of rear-wheel drive technology in North America has dropped off, life-long users and the European market may very well continue supporting the North-American market with continued rear-wheel-drive product availability.

Ultimately, there's no valid discussion over which mobility technology is universally right for any single person - as it all comes down to what an individual finds most comfortable and liberating. Sure, a lot of consumers have sought mid- and center-wheel-drive power wheelchairs, while far fewer seek rear-wheel drive. However, it's in poor taste for anyone to declare another person's preferred mobility technology as "dead" when it clearly still meets his or her mobility needs and remains a market segment. Therefore, the only "dead" mobility technology is that which no consumer finds liberating, thereby no longer buying it. And, as long as consumers continue enjoying and buying rear-wheel-drive technology, it's safe to say that it's still very much alive.

Published 6/08, Copyright 2008, WheelchairJunkie.com