Christian Bremer & Erik Ohlson
Walter – Alter the Wheelchair
Chalmers University of Technology
Walter – Alter the Wheelchair
Walter – Alter the Wheelchair
Walter is an active manual wheelchair developed to meet the needs of users in developing countries. Its low-cost design and rough terrain features is accompanied by the unique possibility of allowing riders to temporarily translate the position of the seat forward and thereby alter the center of gravity.The foremost position prevents riders from falling backwards when climbing steep slopes, facilitates transfer procedures, and provides a more active sitting posture when seated at a table. These advantages contribute to an increased level of independency among the users and Walter thereby promotes increased social integration for users in developing countries.2. The Brief: Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the context for the project, and what was the challenge posed to you? Who is the at-risk population, and what behavior do you seek to change in this population?
This thesis project formulation is based on a lack in sufficient wheelchairs for developing countries. People in developing countries generally enjoy human rights to a much lower extent than people in richer economies and disability often increases this gap. Studies have shown that people with disabilities in developing countries generally are less educated and less likely to be employed, and that lack of mobility inhibits wheelchair users to integrate with society. Similar studies have also showed that wheelchair riders with improved mobility seem to get better opportunities in the society. Previous research has also pointed out that assistive devices incompatible with the environment may end up being abandoned by the user. These are all implications on that there is a need for wheelchairs compatible with each specific context and that wheelchair users in developing countries could increase their opportunities and level of social integration by sufficient equipment.
The new concept should hold some characteristics of current products but a number of challenges remain to be solved. How can an appropriate expression for wheelchairs in developing countries be found and in what way should they provide comfort of the users and ensure their contribution to the society? Furthermore, a low-cost wheelchair is very important, both in terms of purchase and maintenance.
The idea is to provide an adequate assistive product that will help to generate an additional degree of freedom and facilitate social integration. Such solution should counteract the tendency of people getting isolated in the society due to an impairment.
Based on the brief, a general project aim was formulated. However, we wanted to explore what, except from pure functionality, could affect the possibility of promoting social integration through an assistive product solution. Is it even possible to address such problematics through a wheelchair? Well, we believe it is. We decided to reach for a new design that would also promote innovative wheelchair development and thereby foster an industry modernisation.
The project aim was to design an adult active manual wheelchair, which should be compatible with the social, physical and economic conditions that currently characterise the situation in semi-urban environments in developing countries. Part of the project aim was also to strengthen the product range of our partner organisation Whirlwind Wheelchair International, which would serve to increase their capability of providing customised wheelchair solutions for a comprehensive range of use scenarios in developing countries. In the longer perspective, this should become beneficial for the intended target group.
This was accomplished by addressing the following questions:
- How should a wheelchair be designed to increase the opportunities for social integration for active wheelchair riders in semi-urban environments in developing countries?
- In what way should a wheelchair be designed to differentiate from current products on the market and still fit into Whirlwind’s product portfolio?
- Regarding the current market situation, how could a wheelchair be designed to promote innovative wheelchair development in developing countries, which ultimately would foster an industry modernisation?
This project has included expertise in wheelchair development on several different continents through a four-step process with distinct geographical phases. The first phase included planning and initial research in Gothenburg, Sweden. This phase was primarily characterised by literature studies and meetings with Swedish wheelchair developers and occupational therapists. The second step was conducted together with Whirlwind Wheelchair International at their headquarters in San Francisco, CA. They provided access to expertise and resources for designing, constructing and building a functional wheelchair prototype. The idea was to embody ideas for developing world wheelchair design and evaluate them with expert evaluation methods.
The prototype was then brought to Yogyakarta, Indonesia, for the third project phase. Empirical field trials and user studies were conducted together with UCP Wheels for Humanity Indonesia, a non-profit Yogyakarta based NGO working with wheelchair fitting and distribution. Over almost three weeks, 22 users were involved in evaluating the functional prototype. The test population consisted of both men and women, 9 - 60 years old, and the dominating disabilities were paraplegia and polio. A majority of the users were in ages between 30 and 45, but what they all had in common was that they were considered active wheelchair riders that potentially could benefit from this kind of technology.
The fourth and final phase took place in Gothenburg where the feedback from the empirical studies was translated into user requirements and technical specifications, which formed the base of the final result – a second prototype and a new wheelchair designed to accommodate the needs of wheelchair riders in semi-urban environments in developing countries.
The overall methodology implementation was also complemented by a previous wheelchair project conducted by the team members. Its result was a proposal on a new kind of wheelchair distribution system and a conceptual wheelchair design for children with disabilities in Kisumu, Kenya. This means that the design of Walter is based on personal experiences and input from wheelchair expertise and users on four different continents.
By continuously including users, wheelchair developers and distributional organisations, it has been possible to address different stakeholders' interest throughout the complete project. An iterative approach has also allowed a trial-and-error-mentality, where it has been possible to try different ideas and evaluate their performance considering the interests of different stakeholders. By partnering with an existing company, active on this market, it has also been possible to motivate the credibility of productional aspects. It is possible to anticipate a price to the end customer that would not be higher than current products based on similarities in both design and production techniques.
Walter's contribution to active wheelchair users in developing countries is primarily within social integration. By providing necessary functionality to let these users overcome obstacles they currently cannot independently manage and also by facilitating transfer procedures, Walter promotes independency among the intended user group. That should mean a decreased need of assistance and an increased possibility of integrating in the society.
By basing this final design on a rigid framework, which is currently successfully used by several wheelchair developers in industrialised countries, there has been a technology adaption from an industrialised context to a developing contexts. As this technology has enabled new technical opportunities, it has been possible to introduce and evaluate new and innovative wheelchair solutions. Building the alternating seat based on the industrialised version of the frame and proving its user benefit, demonstrates a distinct example of the inherent potential for both modernisation and innovation in the developing world. Thus, based on the development of an adapted technology, the result of this project can be regarded as a source of inspiration for taking the wheelchair industry of the developing world one step further.
Walter's new technology may have an competitive advantage but is primarily seen as a differentiation from currently available solutions on the market. The alternating seat alongside with a rigid framework mean a possible complement to the current product range of Whirlwind, which as previously stated could become beneficial for the intended target group in the longer perspective.
Ensuring the desire of the intended user group is not a definite science but several measures have been used to confidently ensure a high level of credibility in our solution. By including different stakeholders and primarily by embracing a very user centered design methodology, we confidently believe that there is a wish for this kind of new wheelchair technology in developing countries. The current lack of sufficient wheelchair education and training puts higher demands on the equipment, and especially on the ability to overcome every-day obstacles like transfer procedures, inclined pathways and ramps.
Walter was also exhibited during RESNA 2013 (Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America) and was praised by both occupational therapists, wheelchair riders and wheelchair developers, which implies that Walter's technology could be useful in an industrialised context as well. Nevertheless, there is a belief that much can be done for wheelchair users, particularly in developing countries, by thinking out of the box and actually design ??for particular contexts.
Long term sustainability, both operational and economical, would be a key factor to provide users in developing contexts with an adequate wheelchair over time. They most prominent factor in developing countries is often money and during this project, economy has been considered in various ways. The purchasing cost of a chair would be similar to existing wheelchairs designed for developing countries. The main material is chosen to be mild steel, both according to its excellent cost to durability ratio but also because of maintenance reasons. Mild steel would be repairable in local bicycle workshops using available welding techniques and this is complemented by rear wheels and front casters using bicycle hubs. This increases the possibilities of repairing the chair in underdeveloped areas and allows bicycle workshops to function as maintenance workshops.
However, the most important sustainability aspect of Walter is probably something different than keeping costs low. The possible transfer of knowledge between different social groups in an underdeveloped society could have a huge impact for people living with disabilities. By becoming more independent, people in wheelchairs would be a more natural part of society and people in general would become more aware and gradually begin to accept wheelchair users as a natural part of the society. By being more present, wheelchair users would also slowly get the opportunity to force politicians and other decision makers to include their wishes in community and society planning. More is needed than one single product solution but every little helps.