Technology at Your Service

They Look Futuristic, But These Products Are Real World -- and Ready Now

Wheelchair TechnologyRemember the Jetsons? That family from the future lived in a space-age home full of wonderfully advanced gizmos and gadgets — not to mention their devoted robotic housekeeper, Rosie. Their technology was so finely tuned that it seemed to anticipate every need that George, Jane, Judy, Elroy and even Astro the dog might have.

Our everyday technology hasn’t quite achieved Jetsons status: Our cars don’t yet fly, and we still don’t have in-home conveyor belts to move us from bedroom to bathroom to kitchen. But assistive technology is definitely catching up to the stuff of our dreams. While these examples of mobility innovation might sound straight out of science fiction, they’re actually available right now — and dedicated to making mobility more efficient, safe and attractive than ever.

A Little Power Boost

Today’s ultralightweight manual wheelchairs are incredibly light, thanks to cutting-edge design and engineering techniques, and materials such as titanium, carbon fiber and aircraft-grade aluminum. Add optimally configured and fitted seating (e.g., backrest, seat cushion) and ergonomic components (e.g., brakes, handrims, wheels, tires), and you’ve got a mobility system that is easy to self propel, maneuver and transport.

But every ultralightweight wheelchair user knows that not all environments are created equal. The world is filled with expansive spaces. Full of hills and ramps. Teeming with curving paths instead of straight ones, and with as many carpeted expanses as smooth, level floors.

MAX Mobility’s SmartDrive MX2 power-assist system

MAX Mobility’s SmartDrive MX2 power-assist system connects to manual wheelchairs. The MX2 is easily deactivated when it’s not needed.

Power-assist systems give manual wheelchair users a motorized boost to reduce the energy and strength they need to propel, particularly over longer distances and up ramps or slopes. There are several different types of power-assist units: They can attach to the wheelchair frame or replace a wheelchair’s wheel. But they all have the power to reduce the strain felt by shoulders, arms and hands every time a wheelchair user pushes on a handrim. While power-assist systems are commonly mentioned for wheelchair users experiencing shoulder or arm pain, some clinicians believe these systems could also be a way to prevent overuse injuries and strains before they start. And that’s important for wheelchair users who want to be active for a lifetime.

New Twists on Tilt

Permobil’s F5 power base

Permobil’s F5 power base shows off its anterior tilt positioning skills.

Many wheelchair users employ tilt for pressure relief. By intermittently tilting backward, they can shift their body weight onto their backs, which can temporarily relieve pressure on their buttocks and lower the risk of pressure ulcers. Tilting can also help control spasticity, and some wheelchair users routinely spend their time in their wheelchairs tilted slightly back, which can help them to feel more stable and comfortable.

“Posterior” or backward tilt is the most traditional form of this positioning option. But seating & mobility manufacturers offer other types of tilt, as well.

PDG Mobilitys Elevation manual wheelchair

PDG Mobility’s new Elevation manual wheelchair has anterior tilt capabilities.

Think of anterior tilt as being gradually pushed forward. That of leaning forward over the sink while brushing your teeth, or reaching forward to grab a pot on the back burner of the stove.

New power and manual wheelchair designs can make it possible to achieve anterior tilt, sometimes in combination with seat elevation. In fact anterior tilt has become popular enough that some power chair manufacturers have added it to their regular production lineup. Other manufacturers may be able to create anterior tilt in their custom engineering departments, which are capable of achieving all sorts of unique results. So it’s worth asking if you have a special request.

Recently, anterior tilt also became available on an ultralightweight manual chair: PDG Mobility’s new Elevation.

Amysystems custom department

Amysystems’ custom department can create lateral tilt systems for power chairs.

But forward isn’t the only other choice in tilt. Lateral tilt — tilting the wheelchair’s seating system either to the left or right — can help wheelchair users who have certain “fixed” (immovable) or “asymmetrical” postures.

While there isn’t yet as much demand for lateral or anterior tilt, isn’t it great to know that advanced designs and engineering make them possible? If you have a positioning need that’s out of the ordinary, ask your occupational or physical therapist or your assistive technology provider about the possibilities.

Driving Beyond the Joystick

Adaptive Switch Laboratories’ ATOM Electronic Head Array

Adaptive Switch Laboratories’ ATOM Electronic Head Array can be used for computer access or augmentative communications devices.

The most common way to operate a power wheelchair is via joystick. But that’s just the starting point. Power wheelchair manufacturers and specialized driving control manufacturers are constantly developing new ways for consumers to operate their seating & mobility systems even if they cannot grasp and move a traditional joystick.

Some systems — commonly known as alternative driving controls — have been around for a long time. For instance, sip ’n’ puff systems use devices that look just like straws: With his or her lips closed around the straw, the wheelchair user either draws in a breath (“sip”) or blows out a breath (“puff ”) — and that input is used to direct the power chair to go forward, turn, etc. Newer sip ’n’ puff designs, though, have focused on making these systems usable even if the user cannot forcefully breathe in and out on the straw.

“Switch” systems — basically a system with just two options, on or off — used to be considered slow and clumsy to use compared to “proportional” joysticks that have more nuanced controls — not just on or off, but also slower and faster.

Stealth Products i-Drive system

Stealth Products’ i-Drive system enables power wheelchair users to interact with their environments in real time.

But evolving electronics have elevated switch system possibilities. Assistive technology professionals can now use multiple switches on the same wheelchair to create smoother driving experiences. They can also mount switches in various locations, such as near a knee or elbow — wherever the wheelchair user can reach and control. Head arrays can feature multiple switches that can be activated by pressing a pad to the sides or behind the user’s head.

Even traditional joysticks have been revamped. Smaller joysticks, for example, can be a better fit for littler hands. Mini joysticks can also be less obtrusive, and therefore a good choice if a wheelchair user needs to operate it with his/her chin. Some joysticks require very little “throw” to operate — that means the joystick shaft does not need to be pushed very much in any direction to work. That’s very helpful for wheelchair users who don’t have much strength, but still want to be as independent as possible with their wheelchair operation.

The possibilities, from fiber optic switches to joysticks located near your belly button instead of on an armrest, are nearly endless when it comes to driving controls. Assistive technology professionals, working with your power wheelchair manufacturer and possibly a specialty driving controls manufacturer, can create and fine-tune a system that works well for you today and can be tweaked to keep pace if your abilities change down the road.

As for future developments, look for manufacturers to work on how wheelchairs might one day be controlled via tongue/mouth controls, eye gaze, facial movements or, yes, via brain power.

Rising to the Occasion

Quantum Rehab iLevel seat elevation system

Quantum Rehab’s iLevel seat elevation system enables a power chair user to remain raised up to 10" while driving at up to 3.5 mph.

Last year, researchers at Georgetown University’s School of Medicine studied car accident data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Those researchers discovered that when wheelchair users were hit by cars, they were 36 percent more likely to die compared to pedestrians who were on foot when they were hit.

Researchers theorized that a number of reasons could explain the differences in outcomes, including that wheelchair users could often be forced to use streets while pedestrians are more often able to stay on sidewalks, and that wheelchair users are less visible to car drivers than pedestrians are.

A positioning option that could help: seat elevation, which can raise the wheelchair user to be within the visual field of the average standing adult.

In addition to potentially being more visible to car drivers looking through their windshields, seat elevation users could find a number of daily activities much easier to accomplish. Need to grab a plate from a kitchen cabinet or reach into the freezer while preparing a meal? Want to grab a blanket from a closet shelf? Elevating your manual or power wheelchair seat can make those tasks possible to complete independently and safely. Not to mention that having conversations at eye level instead of having to always tilt and hold your head up can reduce strain on your neck, and have an enormous impact on your confidence and comfort in social situations.

ROHO AGILITY back systems

ROHO AGILITY back systems incorporate ROHO’s famous air cells.

A newer trend for seat elevating systems is enabling the wheelchair user to drive the chair at “walking speed” while the seat is elevated. Not only does that feature enable the user to easily “walk and talk” with non-wheelchair users, but it also enables them to be more visible while moving through crowds…and while crossing busy streets.

Backs to the Future

What’s so exciting about backrests, those wheelchair components you just lean on?

If that’s your idea of a backrest, it’s time to take a new look at today’s high-tech offerings.

Stealth Products Tarta backrests

Tarta backrests, distributed by Stealth Products, can be configured to each user’s unique shape.

Think a backrest is heavy and clunky? Futuristic materials like carbon fiber offer strength without the weight. Hate the way that your backrest can get in the way when you propel, or when you reach down or over? Today’s backrest profiles range from low to tall and span everywhere in between to offer you support without being intrusive. Finally, do you think all backrests look the same? You’d be surprised how a component you might very seldom think about can also look like a piece of art — then all but disappear when you’re in your chair.

It’s true. And why shouldn’t it be? After all, isn’t that what the very best technology should do? It should fit your lifestyle, support your activities and do it so seamlessly you almost forget it’s there. Right?

Mission accomplished!

Where Do I Find That?

For more information on the technology in this story, contact the product manufacturers. This list is not all inclusive; additional products and manufacturers can be found in our Product Section. Some technology is available only via prescription or by working with a healthcare professional.

Power Assist Systems

Alber: (888) 426-8581,
MAX Mobility: (800) 637-2980,
Spinergy: (760) 496-2121,
Sunrise Medical: (800) 333-4000,
Yamaha Motor IM America Inc.: (770) 905-7132,

Anterior & Lateral Tilt

Amysystems: (888) 453-0311,
Motion Concepts: (888) 433-6818,
PDG Mobility: (888) 858-4422,
Permobil: (800) 736-0925,

Alternative Driving Controls

Active Controls: (800) 324-1527,
Adaptive Switch Laboratories:
Bodypoint: (800) 547-5716,
Magitek: (260) 488-2226,
Stealth Products: (800) 965-9229,
Switch-It: (800) 376-9888,
Therafin Corp.: (800) 843-7234,
Also: Permobil, Quantum Rehab, Sunrise Medical

Seat Elevation

Innovation In Motion: (800) 327-0681,
Invacare Corp.: (800) 333-6900,
PaceSaver/Leisure-Lift: (800) 862-8782;
Quantum Rehab: (866) 800-2002,
ROVI: (800) 743-0772,
Also: Amysystems, PDG Mobility (manual), Permobil, Sunrise Medical.

Wheelchair Backrests

Accessible Designs Inc. (ADI): (888) 684-2234,
Action Products: (800) 228-7763,
Adaptive Engineering Lab: (866) 656-1486,
Comfort Company: (800) 564-9248,
Ride Designs: (866) 781-1633,
ROHO Inc.: (800) 851-3449,
Supracor: (800) 787-7226,
VARILITE: (800) 827-4548,
Also: Invacare Corp., Quantum Rehab, Stealth Products (Tarta), Sunrise Medical, Therafin Corp.