Wheels of mobility

Published July 12, 2015
File photo by White Star
File photo by White Star

Were it not for the internet and Chinese products, Murtaza Abid of Fatmi Surgical could have carried on doing business the way his father and grandfather used to.

“The dynamics have changed, we are taking the internet seriously,” says Abid, whose family has been running the business for over five decades now. “We are importers and also wholesalers of surgical and mobility equipment for many shops in the city. The prices we can offer you are the cheapest in the country, because we deal directly with sellers.”

The medical supplies market near Lucky Star in Karachi is considered the hub for surgical and mobility equipment. Most shop owners are importers of various equipments that are not found in any other part of the city.

Several shop owners in the market claim that internet is their new frontier, as a lot of potential buyers are looking for cheap deals online. Although no shop has fully embraced the avenue of online sales, there is some movement in shops where the younger generation is taking over the reins of business from their elders.

Times are changing in Karachi’s oldest medical equipment market: with the advent of online marketplaces, there is great demand for cheaper aids

“We do some business online; we take some orders from clients for example, and we deal with our suppliers online. Some footprints are also left in business diaries and other Facebook pages,” says Abid.

People with movement disability can choose from a range of accessories available in the market. From an automatic wheel chair to a homemade hand-pushed cart, it all depends on the kind of disability one has and — not to mention — the depth of their pockets.

A manual wheel chair can cost between Rs7,000 and Rs15,000, which is usually preferred by people with waist-down paralysis. It is also a popular choice among people suffering from old-age muscular ailments that restrict their movement. Then there are wheel chairs with special hydraulics, which starts from Rs15,000 onwards. But interestingly, almost all kinds of mobility equipment have a decent resale value. If used with care, the equipment is often bought by the shops that sell you these products.

“Nowadays, people go for better quality Chinese brands which are light in weight and durable,” says Kashif Pervez, one of the partners at Progressive Surgical, a specialised retail outlet for medical equipment near Lucky Star in Saddar.

But for somebody looking for functional wheel chairs that are more affordable, internet marketplaces such as OLX have opened up a new avenue: second-hand equipment at half the price. With various options on offer, it is often the best fit that works rather than the most expensive.

“For the first few weeks, I was restricted to my bed. Then the doctors advised me to walk with a four-legged walker,” Rameez recalls. “It was not easy to learn to walk all over again.”

One young man who had to experiment his way through is 23-year-old Mohammad Rameez. Two years ago, he had a near-fatal motorbike accident. It was drizzling that day, and when his bike slipped at about 80kmph near Nursery on Shahrea Faisal, Rameez’s left knee hit the kerb. “I heard it crush,” Rameez solemnly says about his knee.

He fainted from the excruciating pain. His doctors installed a rod in his leg and plastered the wound, in the hopes that it would heal on its own. But within a few months, Rameez realised his bone damage was most likely permanent. Today he walks with a crutch balanced under his left arm.

“For the first few weeks, I was restricted to my bed. Then the doctors advised me to walk with a four-legged walker,” he recalls. “It was not easy to learn to walk all over again.”

After four months, he switched to a crutch. “It was a lot more convenient, lighter and easy to handle.”

Crutches are perhaps the most widely used movement aid for the partially-disabled. Mostly made of wood or plastic, crutches are recommended by orthopaedics for bone fractures, when a foot is unable to take weight of the body. But perennially disabled people are also forced to use crutches, sometimes for life.

“A pair of crutches cost around Rs2,000 to Rs3,000, based on the quality of the material,” says Bashir Ahmed, a salesperson at Karachi Surgical. “Unlike other equipment, local crutches are way more popular and cheaper too.”

Very similar to the crutches are walkers that are mostly used by people recuperating from bone fractures or walking after a long rest. The cost of a walker ranges between Rs500 and Rs 2,000, again depending on the quality, with local ones being on the cheaper side.

Though not meant for those suffering from long durations of immobility, the walkers are considered to be crucial for the recovery of bones and are very similar to the walkers used for crawling babies to help them stand on their feet.

But then there are folks such as polio victim Javed Aslam. Since the age of seven, he has not been able to feel any sensation in his left leg. And for as long as he remembers, he has been confined to a wheelchair.

“It is more comfortable but sometimes I take the crutches too. As a 40-year-old man with obesity, the wheel chair is always a better option,” says Aslam. “I use crutches when I feel active, say when I want to go for a walk. But mostly I take the chair because crutches take a lot of strength. My hand begins to hurt after a while, especially in the summers. It’s about convenience.”

Electric wheel chairs are also available in the market but they are prohibitively expensive. Pervez explains electric chairs are the fanciest type offered in this line, costing between Rs90,000 and Rs120,000. “It is a slow moving product. We don’t keep it in the shop because it is hardly sold, but we can arrange it on order,” he says.

Then there is the tricycle, which is manoeuvred by hand. It can cost between Rs8,000 and Rs12,000, depending on the various quality grades. “It is not a popular vehicle as such, but is mostly used by people who like to travel short distances on their own — especially disabled people who work near their homes. And it is relatively cheap too,” says Abid, adding that his shop is one of the few in the city that assembles the cycle on their own. “We take orders and manufacture the cycle with imported equipment.”

The cheapest in the wheel-run line are handmade carts, mostly used by people who can’t afford a wheel chair. These carts are not sold in shops but are crafted by artisans using wooden plates, which are attached with metal cogs which work as wheels. The cogs are mostly hard metal rolls used in heavy industrial machinery. Abid estimates a cart can be manufactured within Rs1,000. “Maybe the costs incurred are even lower than my estimates.”

In the case of Mohammad Iftikhar, who came to Karachi from Multan for the month of Ramazan with the express purpose of begging, it was his eldest son who crafted the hand-driven cart for him.

“It’s cheap and easy to make,” says Iftikhar, before dismissing the virtues of a wheel-chair. “That’s not for us. It is for people with money.”

Owing to diabetes, both his legs were amputated a long time ago. Chaperoned by a little boy, Ifitikhar rides a hand-made cart to scuttle between cars at traffic signals. Since he is a guest in the city, he is forced to shift his locations every three to four days because the “permanents” at the traffic stops just don’t tolerate him more than that.

“A handmade cart can run for years if it is properly maintained. The wheels needs to be oiled else they’ll get corroded. And the board atop should be made out of solid wood.”

The writer is a freelance journalist. He tweets @AmmarShahbazi

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 12th, 2015

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