New Wheelchair Design Eases Mobility Challenges


Living life in a wheelchair comes with unique challenges. The wheelchair itself should not present a challenge as well. Unfortunately, such is the case for many people who do not have the use of their legs.

A new wheelchair prototype seeks to change that, providing an easier and better way to get around.

Dr. Rory Flemmer and Dr. Claire Flemmer pose with their wheelchair prototype, “Ezy-wheels.” Credit: Massey University

Engineers at the Massey University of New Zealand have developed a new type of wheelchair that utilizes a person’s full arm movement. They had found that those in a wheelchair are likely to often suffer from wrist, arm, and shoulder pain as a result of their efforts to move around, pushing at the wheels to generate movement. The engineers sought to identify a solution to this, as many people develop upper limb pain as use of the wheelchair increases.

The general design of a wheelchair has not been altered in almost 100 years, and past studies have recognized the need to update this extremely important piece of medical equipment. As the main method of transportation for many people, having a smart and efficient design is crucial to their health and overall lifestyle.

“Manual wheelchairs require an inefficient push effort, where the user grips either the wheel or a slightly smaller rim on the outside, called the pushrim, and propels the chair forward by pushing the rim, until they are forced let go and repeat the action,” said Dr. Claire Flemmer of the School of Engineering and Advanced Technology.

“This means only about 25 percent of the action actually contributes to the chair going forward. This method causes an imbalanced repetitive strain on the shoulders and wrists that can lead to chronic pain—the longer a person uses the manual wheelchair, the worse it gets until they have to change to a powered wheelchair,” Flemmer explained.

Credit: Massey University

The Massey University engineers have brought a new design prototype to the table, and it goes by the moniker “Ezy-wheels.” The design utilizes 100 percent of the arm effort, making it much easier to go up slopes and across longer distances. The chair has two modes, the most impressive one being the Run mode. Run mode uses an innovative three-gear system to allow ease of movement over challenging terrain and over longer distances.

“The gearing system is similar to a bicycle. High gear is used when the path is easy, such as a flat or downward sloping, smooth surface and low gear when the path is harder, such as up a ramp or tarred path. Run mode does not allow the user to reverse, preventing the user from rolling backwards down a slope,” said Flemmer. “A standard chair performs poorly on even a mild upward slope and when you add age and physical ability into the mix it can be a real challenge.”

Although the current prototype already shows promise, the husband and wife engineering team that designed it are looking to create an even more lightweight model to make the final product more user-friendly.

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