Wheelchairs have been around for centuries, although the wheelchairs used today are most closely related to chairs designed in the 1930s. Meanwhile, the well-known image of a stick-figure in a wheelchair, called the International Symbol of Accessibility (ISA), has been in use since 1968. Both the modern wheelchair and the ISA have served their basic purposes well, but recently many people have been clamoring for the redesign of both.

No significant wheelchair redesign has taken place in the last several decades.

Certainly today’s wheelchairs are preferable to those of the early 1900s, since they’re made of better materials. However, when it comes to the most basic elements of a wheelchair – such as the chair itself – few design improvements have occurred. Sitting in any position for an extended period can be extremely uncomfortable, and a wheelchair is no exception. Slowly, though, more options are becoming available.

For self-propelled wheelchairs, or the wheelchairs that users pushes with their own arms, a tilt-in-space wheelchair may be a good option. These wheelchairs allow their users to tilt the seat of the chair and redistribute body weight. However, these chairs can be heavy or cumbersome, and they’re often extremely expensive. Many self-propelled wheelchair users have to make do with regular position changes, seat cushions, and ergonomic inserts.

For motorized wheelchairs, engineers are developing a unique solution to this type of discomfort, as explained in an article from Empa:

“The new seat shell has an articulated backrest constructed of ribs and movable joints which are designed to match the contours of the user’s torso. Depending on the version, the backrest can be tilted up to 22° forwards and 40° backwards and seat can also be rotated by a good 30° in each direction horizontally. The wheelchair user is therefore strongly encouraged to keep changing his or her position, thereby shifting the location of the pressure points.”

The seat shell is run by the same battery as the motorized wheelchair. Also, the settings are all customizable. The seat can be adjusted by an ergotherapist for optimum positioning, but if the user is uncomfortable, he or she can make further adjustments at will.

People who utilize self-propelled wheelchairs are also faced with a unique problem.

When using a self-propelled or manual wheelchair, a person must grasp the rim on the back wheels and push. This motion utilizes small muscles in the shoulders and, over time, can lead to repetitive stress injuries. NASA engineer Salim Nasser has come up with a wheelchair redesign that combats this issue. He has designed new wheels that use a planetary gear, so that users pull instead of pushing. The resultant motion is similar to rowing.

In addition to being a more efficient use of energy, this could offer some significant health benefits to manual wheelchair users. Jackie Justus, a spinal cord nursing educator, expands on these benefits in an article published in Popular Science:

“Pulling, she says, uses larger stronger muscle groups, while pushing a wheelchair uses little muscles in the front of the body and also hunches over the upper body. The rowing motion makes wheelchair users sit up straight, she says, allowing the diaphragm to function properly and significantly improve breathing.”

Even more exciting, a group of high school students designed a similar wheel for a class project. Their final product allows the wheelchair user to alternate between pushing and pulling. Better yet, almost all the parts were produced with a 3D printer for two to three dollars per part.

People asking for wheelchair redesign also want a larger variety of practical, visually-appealing accessories.

The majority of the wheelchair accessories available now are highly practical, but they’re very lacking in fashion or aesthetics. Most items are available only in black. This may not seem like a big deal, but consider everything that we use on a daily basis. Phones, phone cases, computers, furniture, cars, clothes – everything else in our day-to-day lives seems to be customizable, but people who use wheelchairs are stuck with plain, basic accessories.

At Brunel University London, students have developed a list of items that should be more fashion-savvy and customizable for wheelchair users. Items on the list include:

  • A practical, attractive bag
  • A cup-holder that can hold drinks other than standard water bottles (like a cocktail glass)
  • Chairs in colors other than black
  • Fashionable waterproof covers

The students are working with a UK-based website called Blue Badge Style, which is all about fashionable wheelchair accessories. Additionally, sites like PimpMyChair.com and GettingBackUp.org compile different online resources where wheelchair users can find unique accessories, such as lighted casters and hands-free umbrellas. The website Etsy also has several virtual shops with wheelchair accessories, like wheel covers and even wheelchair costumes for kids.

Each wheelchair user is unique, so more customizable chairs and accessories will allow each individual to express himself or herself more fully. The symbol associated with disabled people, the ISA, doesn’t adequately reflect the individuality of wheelchair users; this is largely why many people now also want to redesign the ISA.

Wheelchair users are just as dynamic as everyone else, so many people want to alter the ISA to show this.

The traditional ISA – the symbol that adorns parking spots, automatic door buttons, and many other places – was a big step forward when it was first introduced, as noted in a Huffington Post article:

“When it was first introduced, it was hoped that the public would be encouraged by the wheelchair symbol to become more aware of the circumstances of people with disabilities. For those living with disability, it was to be a sign of freedom, the marker that meant buildings were accessible and parking spots available.”

Indeed, the ISA wheelchair symbol did its job, aided by the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Since then, though, critics have noted that the ISA isn’t very representative of people in wheelchairs. The stick figure is static and unmoving. Instead, a revised symbol has been introduced. The revised symbol is still a stick figure, but instead of sitting passively, the figure leans forward, its arms on the wheels to propel itself forward. Originally meant to be layered over top of existing ISA symbols, it’s gained such popularity that several states are replacing older symbols with the new, more dynamic one.

However, since a relatively small portion of disabled people actually use wheelchairs, others have taken the debate a step farther and suggested a new ISA symbol that doesn’t feature a wheelchair at all. So far, there’s been little talk of actively replacing the current accessibility symbol with one devoid of a wheelchair, but it’s certainly an interesting aspect to the conversation.

What redesign ideas do you have for wheelchairs? Do you think the accessibility symbol needs an update?

Image by Ted via Flickr

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