Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

Wheelchair Innovations and Designs

There was a blurb about a new "8-speed chair" in the NZ Herald’s Tech Universe of 17 October. It is a new design for a "rowable" wheelchair, appropriately called the RoChair. I had a look at the chair and I am just not convinced. This is the latest in a series of wheelchair innovations and designs that we’ve seen pop up over the last couple years. But do these new wheelchair designs appropriately fill a need?

There’s a fairly well accepted design concept saying "form follows function". Do the designers coming up with these wheelchairs designs and innovations understand the needed functionality? How much input is there from wheelchair users in their designs?

Obviously different people have different needs. Here’s what I look for in a wheelchair:

  • Comfort & Support
  • Lightweight
  • Easy to load in and take out of a car
  • Lets me handle physical barriers in day-to-day life
  • Affordable
  • Good looking / Cool factor

Looking at the RoChair

This wheelchair is propulsed by pulling and pushing a lever at the front of the wheelchair. It has 8 speeds to help with propulsion. It is apparently a more ergonomic movement than pushing the wheels of a standard manual wheelchair. It is narrow and has smaller wheels than a standard wheelchair. It looks bulky – the idea of "less chair, more person" isn’t happening here. It would be impossible to "pop a wheelie" in that chair, making it difficult, if not impossible, to get down or up curb cuts.

RoChair wheelchair

The new RoChair rowable manual wheelchair

Weight

The website states the wheelchair is "lightweight", but does not state the actual weight of the chair. A response to an email enquiry explained that they are looking at an approximate weight of 35 Lbs (15.5 Kg). This is not lightweight. It’s lighter than the old Everest & Jennings wheelchairs that were about 60 Lbs (26.5 Kg). But it’s also 10 Lbs (4.4 Kg) heavier than Marilyn Hamilton’s first Quickie chair – and that dates back to 1980. It’s also significantly heavier than my own wheelchair, a Hallmark which weighs in at 16 Lbs (7 Kg).

Cost

It is pricey – US$4,980.

Speed

It is slow – A maximum speed of 5 miles per hour on flat surfaces. It doesn’t take much for anyone to push a standard manual wheelchair much faster than that.

Seating Options

It only comes in 18" seat width – a lot of people would look like they are "floating" in the chair. In an email, ROTA Mobility told me that they "have standardized upon an 18" seat", adding that "This seems to work for a lot of people".

Dismantling & Car Loading

It does appear to come apart in multiple pieces so it can be loaded in a car – but the more pieces to load, the longer and more cumbersome the process.

Specs taken from the RoChair’s official website. I have no doubt that there is a market for this wheelchair. But this is not a wheelchair that meets my needs – nor that of most of my wheelchair using friends and acquaintances.

Hubless Designs

I am aware of two designs for wheelchairs with hubless wheels. Interesting idea. Not so sure about implementation though.

Photo of futuristic wheelchair design

Futuristic hubless power wheelchair

First is this futuristic wheelchair by Thomas Ross & Dave Cochrane. This feels like an exercise in design with little thought spared for real life use for this chair. There’s not even a footrest! The chair has a zero footprint turning radius. Cool, I guess. This is nothing new though. My manual wheelchair has a zero footprint turning radius. My late wife’s power wheelchair had a zero footprint turning radius, over ten years ago. I don’t believe it would fare very well dealing with sidewalks, curb cuts, and terrain that wheelchair users have to put up with on a daily basis. As for loading it in a car – I can’t see it. I tried to contact Dave Cochrane to discuss his design, seeing that he is in the same city I’m in, but I haven’t heard back.

Photo of hubless wheelchair design

Hubless manual wheelchair

Second is this other hubless design by Jonathan O’Conner. This wheelchair is apparently intended for "young and active disabled individuals", and "will make commuting effortless for the physically challenged". This design does have a footrest – good start. And it has a certain catchy look. However, as with the RoChair and the other hubless design – I’m not convinced. I fail to see how this design could handle real world wheeling. With wheels configured that way, I don’t think jumping down curbs, popping wheelies, etc, would be practicable.

Both these design appear to be more an exercise in design than anything else. I would love to see prototypes and put them through their paces.

Less Is More

Not all innovations need to be as paradigm-shifting as Marilyn Hamilton’s rigid frame, lightweight wheelchair – the precursor of modern rigid frame wheelchairs. For instance, Joven De La Vega designed the HXC a chair intended for the specific purpose of "Hardcore Sitting" – or doing stunts at the skateboard park, in a wheelchair. His design doesn’t look all that different from other chairs, but it is innovative. Between suspension, the way the front casters are mounted to the frame, the footrest, and other features (as described on Gizmag). De La Vega worked with both a wheelchair user and a company making wheelchairs providing feedback on his design.

BMX inspired wheelchair, the HXC

The HXC, a BMX inspired manual wheelchair

The HXC is a purpose-specific wheelchair – the market for it will be limited, just like with the RoChair. Different markets, of course. The other thing is that the HXC will be more versatile – it is designed for hard core sport, but can be used in town, at work, etc. The RoChair isn’t versatile.

Carbon Black wheelchair

The Carbon Black manual wheelchair

The Carbon Black by Imagine is another manual wheelchair that presents innovation. About to hit the market, the Carbon Black is entirely made of carbon fiber (that’s gonna cost a bundle, major downside), has no need to lubricate moving parts (easier to maintain), uses wheels made of one piece (easier to keep true) and has LED lights built in. This is a wheelchair with mega cool factor. It ticks all the boxes for my needs – except pricing, although that isn’t sure yet.

So What?

What next? Time will tell. Not all wheelchair designs are good for everyone, but some designs really need input from wheelchair users. It will be interesting to see if the RoChair gets traction (pun intended), or if it’ll go the way of the iBot and disappear within a few years.

One thought on “Wheelchair Innovations and Designs

  1. This RoChair looks ugly to me. I do have a fairly big arse but use only 16inch chair, can’t imagine using 18inch wide seat. I also like to go fast and 5mph isn’t acceptable. Not being able to pop a wheelie is even more unacceptable, practically making the chair useless. No, thank you, RoChair, I would never use you.

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