The prolonged use of a wheelchair is a reality for over 100 million people across the globe due to disabilities brought about by illness, accident or advanced age. Among the challenges faced by this large and diverse group are; lack of access to adequate wheelchairs due to poverty, the risk of serious and even life threatening injury due to wheelchair roll-away or wheel pinning, and impediments to travel caused by the cumbersome nature of standard wheelchairs.
Fortunately, there are innovators at work who have in recent years addressed these issues through some truly amazing wheelchair inventions.
Don Schoendorfer, a mechanical engineer from Orange County, California, was aware that many of the poorest people around the world live on less than $2 a day, and that when they were needed, standard wheelchairs were financially out of reach at several hundred dollars per unit. Schoendorfer had a goal; to create the world’s cheapest wheelchair for the benefit of poor people with disabilities.
Tinkering for three hours every morning in his garage workshop, Schoendorfer struggled to create a design for a wheelchair that would measure up to harsh terrains and climates at a fraction of the cost of standard wheelchairs. Finally inspiration came in the form of the ubiquitous white plastic lawn chair. The inventor used this low cost item as the centerpiece of his design, equipping his inexpensive chair with two sturdy bike tires and a custom designed chassis.
The result? A durable, low cost wheelchair that can be shipped anywhere in the world for under fifty dollars. Schoendorfer’s nonprofit group, Free Wheelchair Mission, has delivered more than 75,000 to people in Angola, India, Peru, and Iraq. His mission? According to Schoendorfer, “I have a small goal. Twenty million chairs given away free by 2010.”
In Minnesota, farmer turned inventor – Jerry Ford, was approached by his son Zack who worked in a nursing home and had noticed the dangers of elderly residents forgetting to set the brakes on their manual wheelchairs before attempting to stand. The result was often a bad fall as the wheelchair would roll-away from the resident as they applied weight to the chair’s arms when attempting to rise. A problem encountered by elders in other areas as well, especially among those who suffer from senility, Alzheimer’s disease or just forgetfulness.
U.S. Congressman Gil Gutknecht of Minnesota has drawn attention to the problem, pointing out that a fall of this kind is “dangerous for the elderly, especially those in nursing homes, who are often fragile. Just one fall can be a painful death sentence.”
Ford set to work almost immediately and in just a few hours, and with just $19 worth of spare parts, turned a mental picture of a new wheelchair automatic braking system into a reality. Ford’s invention is a revolutionary wheelchair safety system that allows the wheelchair to move when a patient is onboard, but which auto-sets a brake as soon as the user rises. The system does not compromise patient comfort or safety by causing pressure points and allows the wheelchair to operate normally including normal folding.
According to Ford, “our automatic wheelchair brakes and wheel locks help prevent falls, free up staff and improve quality of life… and that’s gotta make a guy feel good.”
On the other side of the world in Australia, Nick Morris is also innovating with an eye toward reducing wheelchair related injuries. His invention, the Vulcan Wheel, is an ergonomically designed one-piece extruded aluminum wheelchair wheel for use in general travel and sport. The unique Vulcan design has streamlined both the push rim and wheel rim of a conventional wheelchair wheel and provides the user with increased surface area to propel the wheelchair.
Morris was injured in a motorcycle accident at age 16 and credits his involvement in sport as the key to his rehabilitation. Nick’s passion for sport led him to design an improvement on the conventional wheelchair wheel, in conjunction with co-inventor David Goding.
Conventional wheelchair wheels have a base construction made up of wheel rim, a push rim and a number of adjoining pieces connecting the rims together. In order to apply force to move a wheelchair, the user grips the push or wheel rim to propel the wheelchair forward. The wheel rim and push rim are joined together by five joins around the wheel causing a vast potential for hands to get caught or jammed in the gaps. This causes trauma and injury to the hands and fingers, often resulting in friction burns, dislocation of the fingers, and skin abrasions. It is also not uncommon for parts of clothing, or objects such as sticks and debris, to get caught in the gap. Secondly, there is insufficient room for placing the palms of the hand on the push rim, as there is not enough surface area between the wheel rim and push rim.
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Morris and Goding’s ergonomic design compliments the use of palm and fingers and reduces the risk of trauma to the hand as there is no area for fingers, thumbs or external objects to get jammed in between the two rims.
The new wheel also weighs less due to a decreased number of components, and is less likely to break down. Its one-piece structure also provides the push rim with an additional degree of stability, making it less likely to buckle and flex when pressure is exerted during pushing, making it ideal for wheelchair sports.
Elsewhere the needs of those who travel with wheelchairs have been reviewed with an eye toward innovation. An Augusta Georgia firm offers a “wheelchair in a bag” that folds and unfolds in seconds and weighs in at just 17 lbs. The lightweight chair is made possible due to the use of aircraft aluminum, which provides the necessary strength with a fraction of the weight of steel. These compact chairs can be bagged and carried with a handle or shoulder strap and include features such as flip back armrests, folding footrests and adjustable wheel locks. Everything you would expect in a full weight chair.
Don Schoendorfer, Jerry Ford, Nick Morris and David Goding have made significant contributions through their inventions, which have improved access, efficiency and safety for wheelchair users throughout the United State and across the globe. And with the 21st Century still in its infancy there is every reason to believe there are more wheelchair innovations in store.