New wheelchair users quickly discover the world is an inconvenient place. Counters are too high, things are constantly out of reach, everything, it seems, is a struggle. Most of us find work-arounds or create tools to deal with these obstacles to living the lives we want. Some of these “gimplements” are as crude as my piece of .75-inch diameter PVC pipe with a wine cork and a clothes hook in one end to flip hard-to-reach switches or to pull things closer. Others are more elaborate and complicated.
Here is a simple gizmo to get your adaptive juices flowing:
Skip Lonie is a carpenter. After a spinal tumor turned him into a T12 para two years ago, a big frustration for him was finding a way to carry his tools around conveniently without having them fall off his lap. A conventional carpenter’s belt wouldn’t work and besides, how could he carry a power drill, a circular saw or a sander and wheel at the same time? His solution is a Container Store metal basket hose-clamped to PVC pipe that slides over his arm rests. The basket stays stable on his lap while he wheels around his shop or Home Depot, the local Safeway or Walgreens.
As with most do it yourself projects, Lonie needed to change, modify and tweak the design a bit along the way. He found his original design too noisy and prone to break down, but after a few modifications he says it worked like a charm.
The Gimp MacGyver
At the other end of the adaptive gizmo spectrum from Lonie you’ll find Brian Johnston — aka “Brain” to wheeler pals back in the day. He is as close to a Gimp MacGyver as I’ve ever run across. He operates with a “there must be a way” mentality that allows this C5 quad of 40-some years to not only live totally independently, but also pursue hobbies and interests that would be demanding and challenging to the most skilled and adventuresome of nondisabled handymen.
He wanted to rebuild vintage mini-bikes and lightweight Harley Davidsons, so he found a way to adapt power tools and other necessities to meet his needs and capabilities, much like he came up with novel solutions and work-arounds to the endless problems quads deal with every day. He built a business around it in the 1980s, hawking his “gimplements” via a mail order business until he began an adventure in real estate — all while finding the time and energy to own and manage an apartment building. He re-invented the business in the 2000s but stopped offering many useful items due to waning demand.
When asked about his most useful and used items, Johnston began with what he sold as “Shut the Door.” The problem, as all wheelers know, is simply shutting a door behind you — a problem especially vexing for quads with limited strength, balance, flexibility and hand dexterity.
“I tried the usual: a shoelace around the door knob, then gripping it with my teeth, but then you’ve got this ugly string on the knob that’s always breaking, so I came up with the Thighmaster,” he explains.
“Well, that’s what all my girlfriends used it for.”
The device looks a lot like that semi-iconic (or “limited time only, shipped to your door for only $29.99”) product marketed on TV in the 1980s: a simple V-shape, with both arms made of wood, perhaps 3 inches wide and 12 inches long, with a 4-inch compression spring near where the arms meet and are hinged. His biggest nemesis was his 2-inch solid core wood exit door. He tried a number of springs before finding the right one for the job.
The device is placed against the wall the door opens to. When Johnston exits the door, pushing against the door compresses the spring, which then recoils back against the door, pushing it shut. Problem solved.
From there he moved on to his ankle cuffs. Having leg spasms in bed would pull his legs up into a fetal position. “I’d have to keep sitting up to straighten my legs out. Eventually they’d spasm again, and I’d have to sit up to straighten my legs out again. I first tried a 1-inch Velcro strap, a pull-up-your-pants dressing loop I came home with from the hospital. Velcro against the skin didn’t seem too smart, so I went to 2-inch webbing lined with sheepskin.”
The cuffs wrap around the ankles and attach to each other with a piece of rope that runs through a sailing cleat mounted on a small piece of wood that sits between the mattress and box springs. “My spasms are mild and just need a bit of resistance to calm them down. Pulling on the rope straightens my legs out, and the sailing cleat keeps them there. It takes maybe $15 of materials.”
We moved on to spray cans. “After I had some small bikes sandblasted, I didn’t want to wait around for someone to help me spray them. First I tried just using my finger and hand brace, but then couldn’t move the can up or down or side to side due to lack of balance. Then I tried using my teeth, but my lip would get in the way and turn my face different colors.
“After some thinking and trial and error, I cut a flat piece of 1-inch steel with the torch, drilled a hole in it and ran a threaded metal rod through the hole to hit the sprayer button. I bent the piece of steel a couple times — once so I could clamp it to the can and another for the trigger mechanism. Then I bent the threaded rod, welded a washer to it and put a spring between two nuts on the metal rod to the trigger. I attached it to a spray can with a hose clamp. Then I could use my hand brace and spray.”
Got all that? Me neither. Once you see a photo or two of the final product, it all begins to make sense.
“It works for anything that sprays — paint, WD-40, bug spray, air freshener, you name it,” he says. He even made one for a fire extinguisher.
Nothing stops this guy. When he tired of repairing his hand brace, he simply made a replacement built to last.
The Ultimate DIY Power Assist
Johnston’s pièce de résistance is his DYI power assist. “I used E-Motion wheels for years, but they’re really heavy and I wanted to rest my arms more. I didn’t have $6,000 or $7,000 for a SmartDrive. A buddy who works for a trash collection outfit said he came across motorized Razor scooters from time to time, and he got me one. It was in pristine condition,” he recalls.
“I designed a mount and figured out a way to connect the motor to the wheel. I used a simple knob — like the volume on a stereo or a wall dimmer switch — to control the speed. The scooter was 24-volt, but when I tried it on my chair, I could go 15 mph. I don’t need to go that fast, so I rewired it for 12 volts. Now the batteries should last twice as long, and they let me get up to about 8 mph.”
He says it works great. His first test ride was five miles of varied terrain, including several challenging hills, with no signs of slowing down. Then he put it in a vise on his work bench and turned it on at about a third of the speed. When he checked after eight hours, the batteries were still showing 12 volts. Eventually it ran for the better part of a day. It’s all switch operated. He just needs to turn it on and guide the wheels. He didn’t get started until mid-August, so wasn’t able to do much testing out of the house, which is where he plans to use it.
“It’s perfect,” he gushed. “If I was to build it from scratch, it might take about $150 for everything — motor, batteries, all the hardware. I spent less than $100 and a case of beer to Danny for finding it. Sure beats $6,000. I wish I could make and sell them. People have offered me stupid money for one, but it’s just too much liability, too much trouble, too many lawyers. I’m afraid to share the plans with people because of liability.”
Meeting the Need
For myself, I stick to simple gimplements — more like Lonie’s tool carrier-basket. I like to read in bed for an hour or more before turning in at night. I bought an adjustable bed, only to find that in the sit-up mode I was too far away from my night table to reach my tea or light switch. Moving the table forward put it about three feet away from the wall as well as created other problems. The solution came by way of roller tracks used for roll-out shelves or drawers. I mounted a track on each side of the table, built a new tabletop and attached it to the roller tracks. Now I can simply reach back and pull the table top forward and voila! — problem solved.
Gimplements are born out of need and a willingness to negotiate with disability. They can be quite crude — the clothes hook on the end of a plastic pipe — or sophisticated, as with Johnston’s Brain Wheel. What they all have in common is that they meet a need and allow the user to live on their own terms.
For more of Johnston’s gimplements, go to Idea Mobility. Here is the Brain Wheel in action: