Part of a Whole

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

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My wheelchair, a precision crafted tool

I spoke about my wheelchair in a short 5 minutes Ignite-style presentation at A11yMTL on 18 July 2017. The following is the video and transcript for that presentation.


All right, good evening. I’ve learned over the years that geeks really like wheelchairs. They think it’s a really cool piece of equipment. So I’m going to talk about it. It was completely custom made. And I have to say, I’m not wheelchair bound. The wheelchair is a tool of freedom for me.

So… It was custom-made. It took about two weeks of discussions with the maker to get the measurements right. And then it took 7 weeks to get the chair, which was actually quite fast because it can take up to 6 months for people to get their wheelchairs. So we have to be careful when we think about that.

Wheelchairs are costly. Mine cost US$4,500, and that was 15 years ago. On the other hand, 15 years for a wheelchair is not such a bad return on investment, but you could buy a cheaper used car for that.

What’s in common between my wheelchair and an aircraft? Well, they’re both made of aircraft-grade aluminium, mostly. Rubber and other parts like that as well or course.

It’s a rigid frame. That means it won’t fold like the old chairs. It also means that 100% of my energy goes into push rather than twisting the chair as you go. But it also means taxi drivers don’t know what to do with it.

I have the front end. My feet are not sticking out. So the front end is at 70, err 105 degree. The old wheelchairs, you ended up with feet really far forward. You couldn’t get anywhere with that. So that’s a major improvement.

I have camber, that’s the angle on the wheels. It allows me to really manoeuvre my chair really quickly. And it acts like a car differential so if the sidewalk is at an angle I can actually push easier. It’s just wide enough to fit through most doors.

Front casters, you’ll see that I have tiny front casters. If I were to buy them at the medical equipment store it would cost me $100 a pair. I go to the inline skate store and I pay $20 for 8 pairs!

I have front suspension, so the front casters have a block of polymer, like a strong plastic that acts as a shock absorber, I can take 1/2” change in level without any problems.

My wheels are Spinergy wheels. They are very expensive, but they also have some kind of give and take in it a little bit of absorption as well. They are light and they are cool. And bikers, cyclists, always like to look at them so that’s always a good point.

I have quick release axles so I can remove my wheels really easily. I press the button in the center of my wheel, the wheel comes off. If I want to put it back in, I go the other way around. So it’s quite simple. I can take it apart in seconds.

Cushion. I’m sitting on a cushion that’s a mix of foam and aircells. It’s great because I can be sitting in my chair for 10 hours without having a sore butt. But it’s not so great because I have to replace it and it’s $700.

I don’t have breaks on this wheelchair, I have wheel locks. My breaks are my hands. Wheels locks are meant to keep you in place when you’re stopped. Breaks are actually meant to slow you down when you’re about to splat into a car that’s going too fast.

I have a certain amount of dump in the chair. That means the front of my chair is higher than the back, by 2 1/2”. It keeps me in the chair securely and it allows me to have a flat lap to put a cutting board on it and whatnot.

This is going quick!

My chair is quite light. It’s 14 pounds, or 7 Kilos, just the chair alone. It saves me lifting 5.5 tons at the end of the year, compared to a heavier chair.

And you’ll notice I don’t have push handles. It’s because I don’t like being pushed. My chair is so tippy that if you were to push me I’d probably flip and land on my back. We’d all find it funny until I realized I’m really hurting!

Talking of tipping, it’s got a really tender balance point. I can tip a wheelie whether I’m stopped or moving and it’s quite easy to do that. It’s very useful for getting on sidewalks.

Now, enough about my chair. Let’s finish with a few photos of accessibility in the real world. This is a bank. There’s a button to open the door. You can get to the button if you can go up the 5 steps. Really fantastic.

This was a pharmacy. They didn’t clear the snow off the ramp. But that’s not a problem because they left two big potted trees in front of the ramp. Incidentally, I never got the cold medicine I needed that day.

And finally, I leave you with a wonderful telephone pole in the middle of a curb cut at a street corner in Montreal. Things like that happen often. I’d rather laugh than cry.

And, thank you.