Musician's invention gives wheelchair users a solution to everyday obstacles
Ascending a curb can be an impossible hurdle. This innovative idea makes it smooth and easy.
For many people in wheelchairs, a four-inch curb might as well be a six-foot wall. Getting from roadway to sidewalk can be a frustrating and often futile trip.
Ilan Aviv never really thought about that until, about three years ago, he saw his wheelchair-bound in-laws trying to navigate their way to the local market and hair salon where they live in Tel Aviv, Israel. It was eye-opening: An older adult, a heavy wheelchair, that imposing curb. Even in what has been billed as an increasingly accessible world for the disabled, everyday obstacles remain.
And so Aviv, a musician by trade, began to think about a solution. He looked at wheelchairs, and at what they needed to do, and then he took an idea he had to Ziv-Av Engineering, a developer of medical devices in Israel. The Step-Up was born.
“Ilan gratefully managed to carry his enthusiasm and sense of importance of this invention,” Dvir Brand, the vice president for research and development, told From The Grapevine. “Although we care about all our projects the same way, this one is, in a sense, special. This is a way of aiding the quality of life of disabled people.”
The concept behind the Step-Up seems beautifully simple.
Say a chair with a Step-Up device approaches a curb from the street. An extender arm, located on the side of the chair, is engaged. One end of this arm reaches out behind the chair, to settle on the lower portion of the obstacle (the street). The other end reaches up and onto the sidewalk, over the curb. This happens with extender arms on both sides of the wheelchair.
As the arms settle in and are extended further, the chair is lifted, parallel to the ground. An electric motor is engaged, guiding the chair – now riding on small wheels on the end of the extender arms – slowly and evenly past the barrier. The chair then settles onto the higher surface, the extender arms are withdrawn and the barrier is overcome.
Easier explained than engineered, certainly. Especially when these arms and the motor have to, essentially, pick up and put down hundreds of pounds of wheelchair and person. Often on rocky or uneven surfaces. And do it safely.
There were obstacles. The arms, mounted in arcs on the sides of the chair, couldn’t increase the chair’s “footprint,” making it any wider or longer. The whole device had to operate smoothly; nobody wants to feel shaky while in the air.
“We had some challenges to make the human-machine interface as user-friendly as possible. To make the user feel confident and safe,” Brand said. “It’s something that lifts you up. It has to feel super stable.”
But Ziv-Av’s engineers have perfected the design. The idea has been patented, and now they are working on continuing to develop it.
“I think we have a feeling from everyone on the team,” Itamar Shimrat, Aviv’s partner and the director of the Step-Up project, told From The Grapevine, “that this has been a labor of love.”
Shimrat says that the Step-Up is still a couple of years away from mass production. The team is considering investors, and then looking to strike a deal with a major wheelchair manufacturer, so the Step-Up can be included in new wheelchairs, rather than just as an add-on.
Those steps will take some time to get over. But that’s what the Step-Up does.
Aviv, Shimrat and the people at Ziv-Av are convinced that not only is there a need for the Step-Up, but that the Step-Up can do more than simply fill needs. It can give those in wheelchairs something they’ve never had.
“The whole point of having a powered wheelchair is for a person to be independent. And to get kind of 90 percent there, instead of 100 … it’s kind of like washing your feet with your socks on,” Shimrat said. “To give these people independence is a huge, huge deal.”
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