The minute we bump up against a new equipment-related problem, we usually pick up the phone or click on Google in search of some solution we can buy with plastic. But a better solution may lie between our ears, in the form of homemade and usually much cheaper equipment. Meet some pioneers who have relied on their own resourcefulness and created their own solutions.
Phil Carpenter has been coming up with homemade solutions since his spinal cord injury in 1972. When he did his first marathon in 1977, racing chairs didn’t exist, so he modified a bath chair he’d liberated from a friend’s bathtub. “We had no choice, nobody was selling what we needed,” he says.
Carpenter, who along with George Murray was the first to wheel across the United States, collaborated with Barry Ewing of Eagle Sports Chairs to create many of the now-standard features of modern racing chairs. He devised everything from steering systems made from screen door springs and shift levers to fenders made from salvaged metal.
“We didn’t have the cash to buy what we needed, so we had to make our own stuff. I got help at different shops to build racing equipment and other things. They liked the creativity and were eager to help.”
For Carpenter, homemade solutions come from a self-sufficient mindset and a focus on problem solving.
“As an occupational therapist, I know that over 50 percent of all adaptive equipment people go home with isn’t used after six months. Either they throw it away, give it away or let it gather dust. I try to get them to problem solve. That’s the key.”
Carpenter has an array of broom handles adorned with hooks to fetch things he drops or can’t reach. But he also thinks big: To get himself and his boats in and out of the lake he lives on near Shreveport, La., he has built his own boat davits, or hoists, by driving dock pilings (for support) into the lake bottom with cables, pulleys and a come-along hooked to the bottom of his pier. He salvaged an old 26-foot sculling rig and outfitted it with outriggers, and converted a small, old one-man sailboat into a work boat that fits under piers and his houseboat. And he fashioned hand controls for his wife’s ’82 Corvette out of hardware store aluminum, some chromoly tubing and an old T-handle gear shift lever from a ’57 Chevy. “The ‘Vette’s gone, but I’m still using the hand controls,” he says.
Carpenter’s yard is ramped with sidewalks he poured himself, using bricks as forms and a small mixer for the concrete. Not always enjoying the luxury of help, he uses long slide boards to load things — “really heavy things” — on his car roof. His wife likes to get him to tell the story of installing a ceiling fan in their bedroom: “I put some plywood on the bed to make it more stable, put my chair on the plywood, pulled myself into it (atop the bed) and installed the fan.”
What About Elevators and Hoists?
Some of the biggest obstacles we face are staircases and two- or three-story homes. Matt Ginop figured $10,000 for a home elevator was out of his league, so he worked with his brother to come up with a $1,100 solution with parts from a salvaged forklift truck.
Also, after discovering that overhead lift track systems — to get his C5-6 body from wheelchair to bed and bed to bathroom — cost between $4,000 and $10,000, he instead devised his own for $500.
“All the commercial lifts used a sling, a winch and a track. I already had a sling from an old Hoyer lift,” says Ginop, who lives in Levering, Mich. He then headed for Home Depot for the rest.
“We bought two barn-door tracks and a trolley with a pulley system, and ran the track about 20 feet across the bedroom. It can’t do corners, but I’ve got a commode chair on wheels I use to get into the bathroom. The winch is mounted on the track and came with a hanging control box with up and down buttons, like the ones in factories and warehouses. We mounted the control box on the sling so I can work it.”
He figures the cost of the sling at about $200, the track/trolley at $90, the track at $40, and the winch at $180. Throw in paint, screws and other small necessities, and he comes up with the $500 total.
His “elevator” is a bit more complicated, creative and homemade. “I thought about mounting a winch cupola on the roof, but my brother had a better idea. He knew a guy with an old forklift that he bought just for the forks. We used the vertical rails from the forklift and welded a platform on it where the forks were. The rails are about 6 feet high, but a hydraulic cylinder and a system of chains then engages a second (or third) rail system to extend the lift to the necessary height. The chains were rusted so badly that we had to soak them in a couple of gallons of WD-40. We also had to replace the hydraulic cylinder and buy some parts to fix a hydraulic pump my dad had, and an electric motor to power the pump. When tested, the platform held five adults.
“We put limit switches on the top and bottom and a simple lever switch (up and down) to operate it. The elevator is crude, but nice. Because it was essentially new construction, I doubt it would work as a retrofit.”
He estimates the total cost at about $1,200: $500 for the new hydraulic cylinder, $400 for electric motor and for parts to fix the hydraulic pump; $80 for the WD-40; a couple hundred more for switches and materials to build the platform and trimmings.
A Different Elevator Solution
Twenty years ago Jimmy Green and his wife, who live in Loganville, Ga., also had an elevator problem. The house plan they couldn’t live without was a two-story with basement, and Green needed access to all of them.
Green and a friend built a 3-by-3-foot shaft using 1-inch square tubing in each corner as guides for the car’s wheels, then mounted and braced a cable winch in the attic. They installed motion detector lights at each stop, operating the winch with a simple push-button control. Like Ginop’s, the entire application looks like a closet.
“It might not pass an OSHA inspection, but it works just fine,” Green says. “We’ve been using the elevator for 20 years, even to haul furniture. When I was running my SportAid business out of the house, we used it daily, but now maybe a couple times a week. I’ve replaced the cable twice, but otherwise have never had any real problems with it. It’s very safe.”
Not sure it would pass a building inspection, Green planned for the shaft but built the house and had it inspected before beginning any work. He guesstimates the overall elevator cost at about $2,000, with the winch being the most expensive item — maybe $200. The rest of the materials included the channeling, motion detectors, wheels, switches, wood, doors, etc.
Brian Johnston turned his penchant for invention and adaptation into businesses, first as IDEA, a company which offered numerous “gimplements” for common problems quads and paras face every day. Eventually the business morphed into Paddle Sports Design, an array of adaptive equipment — seats, paddle grips, cuffs, floatation devices, and even a hand-operated rudder, most all of his own design — which he created for kayaks, canoes and boats.
“The gimplements began when I was living with my sister and learning to be independent. I began making different devices to help me.” Within a couple years he had achieved a remarkable level of independence as a complete C5 quad, living alone and hitting the road solo to do road races. Many who saw him assumed he was a para; others thought he had an unseen attendant. Everyone was incredulous about his only “help” being an array of gear.
“People would see the stuff I used and say, ‘You should sell that’ — so I began pedaling it out of my suitcase. Then I did a catalog featuring all the stuff I used to live alone — the door closer, dressing and zipper hooks, different Velcro straps to keep my legs positioned in the chair, a bed-time leg holder to keep my spastic legs under control while sleeping, kitchen and cooking aids, devices to hold and use screw divers and wrenches.”
The door closer consisted of two pieces of wood in a V shape, hinged at one end, with a spring at the other; push the door against it and the spring would recoil and push the door closed. His door opener was a rubber strap and handle to wrap around those smooth “cue-ball” door handles that quads come to curse. He had a 12-pound portable shower/commode chair for road trips. And he built them all himself, doing the woodworking, metal molding and bending, sanding and polishing, and finishing and sewing.
“I always had a knack for seeing not just what I needed, but what it would look like and how I or others would use it.”
A Crip’s Best Friends
David Birkle, Craig Hospital’s rehab technician, points to Velcro, cafeteria trays, catalogs and fabricators as a crip’s best friends. “Velcro keeps things where you want them. I know one guy who has all kinds of things — keys, remotes, a phone and more — all Velcroed to his lap, so he can get to them. A cafeteria tray is perfect, not just for food but for most any job, especially with the lip on the edges to keep things in place. Catalogs like Smarthome Buyer’s Guide, Loc-Line and Therafin are great. And if you know what you want but don’t have the necessary tools, sometimes the neighborhood fabricator at the local garage or machine shop is willing to help you out.”
As Carpenter says, being willing to engage in problem solving is the key — be it for closing the door or getting up two flights of stairs — and the solutions needn’t be expensive. “My most used gimplements are an array of sticks with hooks, a $10 grabber from the Natural History Museum, and a $5 wastebasket at the top of my garage ramp to close the house door.”
Most of us have way more time, imagination and resourcefulness than money. If living on wheels teaches you anything, it’s resourcefulness. Why not try using it and saving your money?