The Wheelchair Gets a Makeover—and a New Name

Wheelchairs have come a long way since the advent of the motorized model in 1953.

In fact, even the term “wheelchair” has fallen out of favor. Now it’s a “personal mobility device.” Models coming on the market or in development can climb stairs, turn tight corners, make their way over trails, and are lighter and easier to maneuver than earlier generations.

Technical breakthroughs in software, batteries, sensors and lower-cost hardware manufacturing have inspired a recent burst of innovation in personal mobility. At the same time, market demand for these devices is expected to increase with the aging boomer population. Improving technology also makes them more helpful for elder care and elder assistance.

About 20% of the U.S. population has a disability, and about 2% of that group require a personal mobility device, says Richard Skaff, executive director of the advocacy group Designing Accessible Communities, and a user of wheelchairs for more than 30 years.

Lighter and sturdier

Innovation is coming not just to motorized wheelchairs but to manually operated models, too. Tapping technologies already common in bicycles and motorcycles, newest designs are built with carbon fiber, titanium, aluminum and hybrid plastics to be lean and light but durable.

The titanium and aluminum frame of a “rigid” (or nonfolding) wheelchair made by TiLite, a unit of Sweden-based Permobil, weighs a little more than 13 pounds, while the folding wheelchairs seen in short-term use in airports and hospitals weigh 35 to 44 pounds. TiLite uses sophisticated 3-D design software, including SolidWorks, to custom-fit its manual chairs to a customer’s body, says TiLite Vice President of Product Josh Anderson.

Among motorized versions, newer designs make it possible for wheelchairs to do things that weren’t possible with older designs. One chair in development, the Scalevo, can climb stairs so that users don’t need to find a ramp or a separate device to maneuver up a stairway.

The prototype, from ETH Zürich’s Automatic Systems Laboratory in Switzerland, features tracks alongside the two wheels that bite onto each step and pull the chair up. Additional balancing mechanisms keep the seat level as the chair ascends or descends, so a user won’t risk toppling out. The device is still in the early stages of development, and the lab wouldn’t say when it expects to have a product ready for market.

To read the rest of this article, published in the Wall Street Journal, please click here.