Hi-tech wheelchairs improve life for the disabled

January 14th, 2008 by Julie Ferguson

If you haven’t seen some of the recent progress being made in wheelchair technology, you may be in for surprise. This feature from deputydog, a “cool and interesting things” weblog, features photos, video clips and links to various hi-tech wheelchairs. While some selections fall more under the category of “personal transport systems” than wheelchairs, most are designed to offer a better experience for disabled persons in various ways:

  • Better mobility – affording the user access to uneven terrain and non-paved surfaces, as well as the ability to maneuver curbs and stairs
  • Smaller footprint – reducing the size of wheelchairs to make them easier to navigate through normal doors and and fit better in public spaces
  • Better balance – improving stability and allowing users to be more agile in navigating turns
  • Better ergonomics – allowing a user to switch heights to experience the world at eye level, or to lower seat height to fit under standard tables and desks

One of the most exciting developments is the iBOT Mobility System based on the same technology as the Segway. Its development came about as a partnership between Dean Kamen’s research firm and Johnson and Johnson’s Independence Technology division. It is a four-wheeled chair, but it can convert to and operate on two-wheels. We’ve seen this chair being demonstrated at industry trade shows and an immediate sense of empowerment is conveyed when a user switches from normal use to two-wheeled eye-level use – it’s quite remarkable. The iBOT can also maneuver curbs and stairs. Sensors and gyroscopes give the chair stability and balance. If you haven’t see these in operation, you might enjoy some of the videos showing the iBOT in operation.
Medgadget (which, incidentally is a very cool weblog to visit every now and again for the latest in medical technology) recently reported on the NOA wheelchair from Tekniker-Ik4, which features ” …additional functions which go beyond the mere transport of users and aimed at facilitating the activities of their daily lives.” One of the goals was to design a chair that would function as a single purpose chair since many users have two chairs designed to meet the differing needs of internal and external use. The design also allows expanded vertical positioning, giving the user the ability to reach high or low objects, to converse at various heights, and to facilitate transfers at different heights.
There is even hope on the horizon that may revolutionize life for some of the profoundly disabled who have been largely immobile. Wired reports on the development of a wheelchair that reads your mind, a thought-controlled robotic wheelchair for disabled patients who suffer from disease or injury that leave them unable to move. This initiative is being developed in Spain and the first working prototype is expected in 2008 or early 2009. Here’s more information on how thought-controlled wheelchairs work.

With the number of disabled veterans returning from war, there is, unfortunately, a growing market for assistive technologies so we can expect to see advances in wheelchairs, prosthetics, and other device designed to help the disabled lead a more functional life.

The Job Accommodation Network has an accommodation and compliance guide for employers for Employees Who Use Wheelchairs (PDF), as well as an accomodation process flow chart (PDF). Also, the The Wheelchair User’s Work Environment has some practical tips for improving wheelchair access at work.

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