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Left for dead on the street corner, his spine shattered, Mr.

September 28, 1995

Left for dead on the street corner, his spine shattered, Mr. Leggett was eventually rushed to a hospital, where he was told he would never walk again.

Now, high-tech wheelchair technology allows him to live a reasonably normal life. His Quickie is about five months old; his first chair was more basic. He has recently acquired another chair _ a $5,500, powder-blue, stand-up model. A government-funded rehabilitation program bought the chair for Mr. Leggett at the urging of the Detroit Medical Center, where he recently got a job as an ambulatory-services representative. In a matter of seconds, the chair allows Mr. Leggett to go from a sitting to standing position _ helpful when he has to reach the upper drawers of his office filing cabinet. Though he still uses his Quickie at home, ``this standing chair is like the ultimate. It’s an Excalibur or a Rolls-Royce,″ he says.

Until he got his job, Mr. Leggett, like many paralyzed gunshot victims, relied upon Medicaid health insurance to finance his chairs. Medicaid allowances are generous but don’t always cover the full price of the most expensive high-performance chairs. And the government program only allows users to upgrade every five years.

But because Medicaid is such a big player in the market, it has prodded high-performance wheelchair makers to lower prices while adding options. ``You used to be able to get antilock brakes when you bought a Mercedes, and now you can get them on a (Chrysler) Neon,″ says Mr. Curran of Invacare’s Action division. ``Likewise, features and benefits that used to be only in upper-end wheelchairs have been put into the lower end.″

For example, Action last November made a low-end version of its upper-end $1,995 ``Terminator.″ Known as the ``A4,″ it sells for $1,800. The price of Action’s ``Pro T″ wheelchair dropped from $1,850 to $1,250 late last year. Both maintain many features of the higher-priced models; other wheelchair makers are following suit.

One component of the high-performance wheelchair market is sports; with disabled athletes now competing in everything from basketball to track to tennis, companies also have begun to turn out chairs that are sports specific. Consider Invacare Action’s ``T3″ tennis chair _ a three-wheeler that sells for about $2,500.

To market these chairs, manufacturers sponsor wheelchair teams and sporting events; Invacare Action, for example, sponsors the Dallas Wheelchair Mavericks, the Chicago Wheelchair Bulls and the Utah Wheelchair Jazz. It and other companies also underwrite sporting events, including the Paralympic Games, considered the second-largest sporting event in the world after the Olympics. Manufacturers also show off their chairs in commercials and on television shows. Tarah Schaeffer, the nine-year-old wheelchair user on ``Sesame Street,″ rides a hot-pink Quickie. The chairs also were featured in an episode of ``Northern Exposure″ that included a wheelchair race.

But to reach their bigger market _ urban youths _ wheelchair companies target rehabilitation centers, the second stop for spinal-cord-injury patients following, in many cases, a stay in a hospital critical-care unit. These centers are pivotal marketing and distribution outlets because performance wheelchairs aren’t sold through major retailers; they typically are fitted by doctors and made to order.

Wheelchair makers try to persuade physical and occupational therapists to use their chairs, holding individual sales pitches at hospitals _ known as sitting clinics. Patients see demonstrations, and wheelchair makers leave plenty of chairs around to test drive. ``The first chair somebody will prescribe for you. But you’ll get more knowledgeable, and the second chair becomes a consumer chair,″ says Ms. Batista of Quickie. By that time, the buyer will ``know what’s cool.″

Quickie, acquired by Sunrise Medical in 1986, was co-founded by an investor injured in a hang-gliding accident; she wanted a wheelchair made of the same ultralight aluminum tubing that framed her glider. These days, Quickie actually markets itself as the company with the ``hippest″ wheelchairs, using sex appeal to cater to a youthful, macho image. It prints T-shirts and buttons with such slogans as ``You’ll never forget your 1st Quickie″ and ``Nothing beats a Quickie.″

Meanwhile, Invacare’s Action division was launched five years ago, and its chairs are considered the company’s premier product line. ``We make the Corvettes of the world vs. the standard Chevy,″ says Rick Cooper, Invacare’s consumer-relation manager.

Some of these Corvettes are on display on the basketball court on Tuesday mornings and Thursday evenings at Detroit’s Gen. George S. Patton Memorial Recreation Center. Most of the players in these wheelchair basketball leagues are victims of urban violence.

They play an aggressive game, wheeling madly about the court strapped into their chairs at the thighs and calves to keep from falling out. But crashes are common _ sounding like a massive collision of bicycles _ and chairs often go tumbling over, players with them.

But the action turns the court into a virtual rainbow of wheelchairs, and players spend as much time talking about chairs _ colors and performance _ as they do about the game. The hip look at the moment: frames decorated with a kind of spider-web effect achieved by spray painting a variety of colors over a basic finish.

James Gouch, 26, likes his look better, however. Injured in a traffic accident several years ago, he now wheels around in giddy circles in Invacare’s new ``Top End″ model _ a $2,300 chair whose frame is a mind-altering bluish-purple. Best of all, the chair has in-line skate casters that allow him to make basketball moves reminiscent of the spinning dance steps of Motown’s Four Tops, a 1960s rhythm-and-blues group. ``I’m quicker and I turn better,″ Mr. Gouch says.

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