2017 National Mature Media Award WINNER

2017 National Mature Media Award WINNER
The Creative Landscape of Aging Wins a NMMA Award!

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Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Evolving Wheelchair: Innovation, Adaptability & Design

True or False:

  1. All wheelchairs look alike
  2. All wheelchairs have a grey or dark colored surface
  3. All wheelchairs cost only a small fraction of the cost of a car
  4. No wheelchair can climb stairs
  5. Wheelchairs can never be used on sand, mud or other exceptional terrain/

The answer to all of the above is FALSE.
Wheelchairs have come a long way since their first debut in 1595 as an “invalids chair” for Phillip II of Spain. In recent years, industrial designers worldwide have taken the challenge to create the exceptional merger of form, function and uniqueness. Each has a different perspective on style, an approach to challenge the function and a dazzling feature. Some prototypes are so unusual that they may never get to market or, if they did, they may not be able to sell enough wheelchairs to sustain their business. Yet wild designs are important because they break down the stereotypes and then innovative elements start to appear in other models. Also the reverse is true. Seeing the capability of a wheelchair in a special way can trigger thoughts of advancing that feature with more functionality in a new model.

One of the most remarkable wheelchair innovations is a submersible model. British artist Sue Austin, a wheelchair user since 1996, pursued this development with a team of engineers. Adaptable for scuba diving, it uses dive thrusters, control surfaces, and flotation as well as fins attached to Sue’s feet to support self propelling underwater.  Engaged in performance art, the wheelchair is part of her Freewheeling project which addresses the intersection of art and disability.

“Dance is a state of mind and an attitude, not just a physical motion.” says Auti Angel, a "dancebassador" at an Abilities Expo.. And so dancing is now a new movement enabled by wheelchairs. Auti uses what appears to be a standard type wheelchair but with simplified design and greater flexibility that allows graceful control on the dance floor. Merry Lynn Morris, a dance professor at the University of South Florida, has designed the Rolling Dance Chair. Modeled from part of a Segway device, it has a fabric covered round seat that is transparent and designed to almost disappear under the dancer. It is strong enough for a second dancer to stand on in active spinning position. But perhaps the most exciting and important feature is that the person sitting in the chair has complete control of its movement so when s/he leans, the chair moves as the wheels propel responding to the user's movement.


All terrain wheelchairs are attracting interest. From moving gracefully on a sandy beach to climbing up and down stairs, these wheelchairs have been designed with unique sets of wheels. HEROes Series of Sport Wheelchairs inspired by Mark Zupan, a quadriplegic and captain of the United States wheelchair rugby team, built a wheelchair not just for the beach but predictably also for beach rugby. And a team of designers, Julia Kaisinger, Mathias Mayrhofer and Benesch Xiulian, worked together to develop the CARRIER Wheelchair that can provide complete independence for the user traveling over any terrain. Its functions include traction to climb the stairs and a standing position so the user can be at eye level with other people and have the potential to reach things that previously could not reached from a seated position. Another very special practical design element would eliminate the need to physically transfer to a toilet seat.

And there’s the social and psychological aspect of being in a wheelchair that the average mobile person does not think about.  Yet for Alexandre Pain, his design goal was “Designing for Social Stigma” and he wanted to create change with a dramatic and elegant design that does not resemble a wheelchair. To fully understand the dynamics of a wheelchair with respect to both its function  and challenges of the user, he dedicated time being in the wheelchair. Alexandre found that the most difficult aspect was the stigma associated with it and so his goal was to reinvent it, morph it into an entity that did not resemble its former life.. The result is the electric Tandem scooter which  is quite beautiful and, like a scooter, comes with additional seating for another person in the back. His goal is achieved with this because it reduces the negative perception of disability that is associated with a wheelchair.

More evolutionary wheelchair designs include:

• The Nimbl concept wheelchair by designer Lawrence Kwok (with Tino Sacino, Danna Lei and Alison Ochoa) that enables the user to move through interior home space without having to make costly physical changes to the space.


•  The Firefly from Rio Mobility is an attachable electric handcycle. From the wheelchair position, a person can attach this device to the front. It transforms the wheelchair to a motorbike look and gives the user control with steering and. speed

• The Cursum – Stroller for wheelchair users by designer Cindy Sj√∂blom. “Parenting in the first stages of infancy can be incredibly challenging – add a mobile disability to the equation and you can imagine how daunting it might seem.” This wheelchair was created to work in tandem with an infant seat.


• Mauricio Maeda designed an entertainment mobile for the wheelchair user. “In my humble opinion, design should not be just about making beautiful things, but to improve people’s lives and serve a purpose as well. I decided to model a wheelchair because I hardly ever could find one that presented a little more comfort and some additional features (at least here in Japan! ). I’ve put a portable computer case under the seat, a joystick (to move the wheelchair), a trackball, a monitor, a keyboard, speakers, a wireless headset, a webcam, a drink holder, a stereo sound gadget (behind the seat), a power source on the back and a remote control. Some other features could be added, but I didn’t want to turn it into a Christmas tree…So… that’s it…”


There will always be people with disabilities and there will always be wheelchairs but now designers have taken the challenge to blend form and function. Leaving the classic stereotype behind has given designers the freedom to bring more versatility to the wheelchair and therefore an enhanced quality of life to the user. For the disabled, it will provide more mobility and independence and therefore positively impact their social interactions, their options for leisure time and their self esteem.



"Money cannot buy health, but I'd settle for a diamond-studded wheelchair."
-Dorothy Parker