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Things I’d Like to See: 7 Outrageous Inventions for Wheelchair Users

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Illustrations by Mark Weber

My bicycling days ended 25 years ago when a pickup truck ran me over on a solo ride out on a narrow rural bridge and my T11 and T12 vertebrae went in opposite directions. Now I’m functionally a T8 para and about as independent as you can get. I have big strong arms and durable shoulders, but both of them have been complaining longer and louder as I close in on 60. Even now an uncomfortably large percentage of nondisabled gawkers are unable to resist comments such as, “Wow, you sure get around pretty good!” I have yet to develop a snappy answer to this banal statement, so I just smile benignly. Like everyone else, I have adapted.

My gear has improved immensely in the interval. I started with a folding lightweight (sure stowed nicely) and now have a rigid titanium ultralight that handles just fine. I have discovered over the years all sorts of small innovations that add a disproportionate amount of good to my quality of life index. Narrow 100-psi tires make my wheeled steed corner like a Ferrari and take less effort to push. Five-inch front casters, 1.5 inches in width with a rounded crown allow me (almost) the same advantages as a skinnier 1-inch caster on smooth surfaces because they ride on the narrow crown. They also make the going on grass or rough surfaces much smoother where their wider footprint is welcome, or on those pesky storm grates that inevitably swallow a narrower caster. A mesh sling attached down low underneath my seat allows me to stow my bulky jacket or camera bag or those two heavy quart containers of orange juice I just got at the market. Having the weight underneath keeps my center of gravity much lower than if I had thrown them in my back bag, which makes my whole rig back-heavy and squirrelly up front.

But there are still things I would like to see. I offer up these ideas to you engineers and inventors out there looking for a challenge. No need for credit — take the idea and run with it, you have my blessings. Some of these inventions for wheelchair users undoubtedly already exist, but I guarantee that some of them don’t (generally because they are outlandish or endearingly impractical), but each of them puts a spotlight on one of the small but troublesome dilemmas that plague my particular corner of the disability universe. I am guessing I am not completely alone. And the more small problems that get solved cheaply, easily and practically, the more time we disabled folk have left over for higher level functions.

things2The Wheelchair Front-Plow
A wide, V-shaped flexible plow that easily attaches to the front of your chair, like a snowplow but for light-duty use. Made of stiffened rubber or some durable, flexible but strong plastic, it would hug the ground and push all manner of objects in your path out of the way. It would have to be wide enough to direct items beyond the reach of your back wheels so you don’t crunch them on your way through. All those years of navigating a living room strewn with Lego pieces after the kids went to bed would have been a lot easier with this implement. A corollary design might have brushes, allowing you to sweep the floor like those drivable lawnmowers handle a field, and you would just make a long, systematic pass through your house to clean up.

The Back Hook Implant
No one else ever seems to complain about it but this remains a vexing personal issue — my pants and undershorts don’t stay up. It happens when I transfer from my chair or involuntarily fall out of it. When this happens, my first thought is not “I wonder what sort of damage I have done to my body?” but “Damn, my pants are halfway off, how am I going to remount my chair gracefully and keep them on?” I propose a surgical implant, a small post or hook in your T12 or L1-4 vertebra, that would allow you to hook your trousers and undershorts on it, thereby keeping them well positioned.

It might be necessary to attach extra loops on your garments to provide easy attachment, like they do on some coats and shirts. This has obvious engineering challenges. The hook would have to be attached in such a way that opportunistic bacteria wouldn’t find a path through your skin. Size would matter, as I could imagine if too large that all sorts of untoward things would happen — like trying to get out of the car with this rig and somehow snagging the seat belt apparatus, getting all tangled up in the restraint system and doing a face plant on the ground. It would have to be skin color to minimize attention, say, at a beach, to avoid comments like, “What the hell is that? A hat-rack? These wheelchair guys will do damn near anything.” Yes, yes, I have tried all the normal stuff — belts and suspenders, plus some unorthodox projects I am too embarrassed to describe, but nothing seems to work. Nondisabled folks have proper well-toned hips and rumps in place, and their pants stay up, but my trousers sit on me like a sock on a cylinder, and sliding off is a perennial problem.

Removable Tank Tracks
Bulldozers, tanks, graders — those things sure manage to get over all sorts of nasty terrain. I know folks have developed tracked power wheelchairs (all I can say is “wow!”) but what if there was a way to attach a set of removable treads to your hand-propelled wheelchair so you could have the best of both worlds? The places you could go, the things you would see! But the design challenges are significant.

First of all, you would need a way to lock your caster forks so they just went straight ahead. The easy solution would just be a pin you could push into holes drilled in your caster bearing housing and the axle shaft, holding everything in a straight line, but contamination from dirt and water could be a drawback, plus you could only go travel in a straight line. There are likely other solutions — and come to think of it, most front casters are not on the same plane as the rear wheels, so my initial cheapskate idea won’t work. You would need to have some sort of sub-frame that attaches to the front of your chair so that front and rear wheels were aligned. The caster wheels would hold the tracks — this approach might allow taller and wider front wheels that would be good for rougher terrain, plus a longer tread contact area and longer wheelbase for stability. The tracks themselves would need to be lightweight, somewhat elastic (would they need a tensioner of some sort?), and be able to grip your wheels tight enough not to come off but not so tight as to make pushing them impossible. Whew! — this last challenge is likely severe enough to be lethal to this otherwise enchanting innovation.

things3Self-Leveling Cupholder
I would love to have a place to put my beer glass so that I could cross a room — using both hands! — without tipping half of my beer out all over the host’s floor or carpet, which tends to cause understandable but thoroughly unpleasant dramatics. Holding a full glass with something liquid in one hand means tacking back and forth like an America’s Cup racer in front of the wind, as you pass the glass from one hand to the other so you can push one wheel, then the other, and guests gaze at you open-mouthed with some alarm while you zigzag across the room. The cup-holder, attached one way or another to your chair, would require some sort of gyroscope or self-leveling mechanism that would keep your drink upright reliably. A good, heavy-duty design might even allow you to traverse a meadow, say at an outdoor music concert, without spilling. Yes, I have heard of mugs with covers, but still … the nautical world may have something to offer in this arena.

Revolving Bed Sheet Changer
Those of you of a certain age may remember going into a gas station restroom and using a device, which fascinated me as a child, that had a clean cloth on what appeared to be an infinite loop. After washing your hands, you wiped them dry on the cloth that was exposed, then pulled on the cloth which then ratcheted a new fresh section in place for the next set of wet hands while the wet/soiled section disappeared into the innards of the dispenser. How did they do it? I have no idea. I used to imagine little elves on the inside — the same ones who also turned the refrigerator light off and on each time you opened and closed the door — that cleaned the cloth and returned a fresh section to the next hand-washer person. But it would be great to make it work on bed sheets. Your bottom sheets get a bit grimy or stale, all you do is pull on the sheet until a fresh section is in place. Voila!

things4Inflatable Footwear
When I left rehab, I was a good boy and bought some sturdy shoes that kept my feet well protected but were a monumental pain to get on and off. When you are wrestling stiff, bulky shoes onto a floppy pair of feet with the equivalent rigidity and control of wet pasta, frustration sets in and does nasty things to one’s tranquility. Plus — and they didn’t tell me this at rehab — as the proud owner of a neurogenic bladder, one ends up needing to change clothes frequently. Thus, shoes off and on, off and on. I now have reasonably effective means to cope with various leakages these days, but at least once a week I still find myself needing to change clothes during the day. This often occurs 10 minutes before an important meeting. I go to the men’s room, where some nondisabled yutz is inevitably camped out in the disabled stall, so I need to do the Superman-quick-change in the main area of the men’s room. But shoes that can’t be gotten off and on easily are most unwelcome. My solution has been Birkenstocks, which are light, available, come off and on in a trice, adjust easily to swollen feet, and matched with my beret give me a jaunty, vaguely Marxist look that allows me to say things in public I might not be able to get away with otherwise. But they don’t do a good job protecting toes or those bumps on my outer ankles. How about snug-fitting inflatables that look just like feet only slightly larger? People might stare at my enlarged bare feet, but they also might give me extra space when I round a corner.

Spatial Wheeled Equitable Access Tester (S.W.E.A.T)
Speaking of inflatables, ever been to a meeting room or conference space where there isn’t enough clearance to get around chairs and tables? I thought so. The S.W.E.A.T would easily indicate where the problem areas were and transform a room into ADA-compliancy in a snap, and the cheapest and lowest tech solution would be one of those giant inflatable exercise balls that some folks sit on for posture purposes. Get one that is, say, 30 inches in diameter, roll it up and down the aisles, around the room, and you would very quickly discover the bottlenecks. We can, and should, argue about dimensions but 30 inches would be a vast luxury for me.

Now of course the obvious trouble with this solution is that, besides its virtues of low cost, deflatability and easy storage, as a sphere it only works at the point of its widest clearance, i.e., half-way up. Like many wheelchairs, my wheels are cambered, wider at the ground than anywhere else. You need something to check clearance at the floor level. How about a cylinder on wheels, maybe 3 feet tall, like those wheel-able rubbish containers that janitors use, simple enough for a 10-year old to operate, to push around the room. Anything, high or low, that was too narrow would obstruct your S.W.E.A.T, and you could just move the offending chair or table out of the way or otherwise adjust clearance. The distinct, recognizable shape could conceivably attract corporate sponsorship, driving down costs. Red Bull? Heineken? Step right up. They could both do their advertising thing in a creative new way and at the same time tell the world that “Here’s a company that is TOTALLY WITH the disability program!” Of course having a 10-year old push around an oversized Heineken can might make some folks hot under the collar.

There you have it. Let the patent rush begin.

Ned Fielden is a reference librarian at San Francisco State University and author of books on Internet research.

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  1. Paul Stewart says:

    Great ideas, I did find a metal cup holder that won’t break and has a gimbel type base at a boat store. But still looking for the sheet changer

  2. alice says:

    Hi Ned,

    GREAT article!

    We look for problems such as you described, and make suggestions for purchase or custom design add-ons that use commercial off-the-shelf — non-proprietary — parts.

    In regard to the “[i]nflatable [f]ootwear” problem you described and the ease of wearing Birkenstocks but lack of foot-protection these offer. I’d like to suggest steel toe slip-on shoes or steel toe clogs. Yes, these do exist, and are easy to get on and off. The main difference between these is the whether you’d like a back to the shoe (slip-on) or not (clog). These footwear accommodate the needs of workers in metal workshops as well as commercial kitchens. But may serve you as well in your everyday needs.

    In regard to the [b]ack [h]ook [i]mplant, you mentioned that you’ve tried belts and suspenders. Have you tried overalls? Overalls are able to withstand tugging where suspenders are not. If this type of garment works for you, it is possible to make similar items where a less casual (more dressy) look is required — picture a vest that’s sewed to a matching pair of trousers.

    In regard to the [w]heelchair [f]ront-[p]low (reminds me of “cow-catchers” on rail engines ;-), try a children’s [plastic] snow pusher. There is usually a metal strip at the lower edge of the pusher. If it is difficult to take this strip off without damage to the pusher, try putting tape over this edge to avoid damage to items around your house.

    I hope these suggestions work well for you.

    Inventions are all collaborations — let’s start a discussion!

    –Alice

    Class of Spring 2010
    ENGR 620, SFSU

    alice@reconfigurablemind.com
    alice@505access.com

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