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Wheelchair Build Project: Post 1

September 22, 2017

In the last couple of months, the mobility scooter I rely on to get around out of the house has started to fail in a major way. This week it was serviced, and I can get some new batteries which will make it last a little longer, maybe as much as a year. 

Having had the scooter for 2 years, I’ve known for a while that it’s not really the best mobility device for me. Long term, I need something that can do a couple more things than the scooter can, and definitely something that will last longer. 

Knowing that my current device has a ticking clock, naturally I started to look around, to see what my options could be to buy something. 

I have been bitterly disappointed. The options out there for mobility devices are either crap, or astronomically expensive, but most often both. There are a couple of things that I could theoretically cobble together to make a system that might work for me, but it would be for two devices, both shipping internationally, with no local shops or support if something goes wrong. Oh yes, and a minimum up front investment of £6,000. 

Even then, whatever device or combination of devices I look at, none of them will do all of the things I want them to do in one. Each of them will be appropriate for maybe 95% of the situations where I need a mobility aid, but I’d need something else for the other 5%. Which might be fine if I drove everywhere and could keep my backup mobility device(s) in my car, but I’m medically forbidden to drive, and use a lot of public transport. 

While looking around, I came across something called the Leveraged Freedom Chair, and it’s relative, the GRIT Freedom Chair. These wheelchairs meet a whole load of my criteria. They’re maneuverable. They’re robust. They’re easy to fix and thus likely to last a long time. 

But the leveraged freedom chair isn’t available in the UK, the GRIT chair sells from the US making shipping alone almost £600, oh yes, and neither of them has a power option, which is necessary for me.

Yet, when I look at electric wheelchairs, I come up against the other end of the spectrum. They’re also expensive. Often ugly. Very bulky. And they’re not really possible to maneuvre without specialist equipment. Which means that if I want to go anywhere, and I mean anywhere, I have to know ahead of time that there will be ramps or lifts for every single bit of the journey. Including in and out of vehicles. Which means I will never be able to just catch a lift somewhere. One of my partners has a car, and it’s entirely unsuitable for carrying a 95kg electric wheelchair or having a ramp fitted. My other partner who drives just hires a car when he needs one – and I don’t even know how you start getting a ramped, accessible, hire vehicle. Therefore an electric wheelchair is also out. 

Before I got as ill and disabled as I am now, I enjoyed cycling a lot. I cycled all over North London when I was a kid, and a few years ago, I got myself an electric bike to help my already-a-little-bit-ill self to get up and down Sheffield’s hills and out into the Peaks. 

All of which has led me to believe that it just has to be possible to combine the power of an e-bike, the innovation of manual lever drives, and the building ethos of using primarily off-the-shelf bicycle parts to create a wheelchair that will work for me. For the long term. In all the situations I need it.

I’ve been thinking this over for the past few days, and I’m brimming with ideas. But as any designer or engineer knows, the place you have to start is the brief. So here are the outlines I need to fill in.

BRIEF FOR CHARLIE’S WHEELCHAIR

  1. Capable of both manual and powered operation
  2. Can be folded and / or dismantled enough to fit into a car boot – specifically, the boot of my partner’s car
  3. Easy to use on public transport, that is, maneuverable, and copes well with sloped ramps in a timely manner
  4. Uses as many off the shelf bike and ebike parts as possible, with a minimum of custom parts, aiming for a total cost under £1,000
  5. Fits at a table or under a desk
  6. Legal to use on the pavement in the UK
  7. Easy to modify and repair

I’m going to document the whole design and build process on here, including my mistakes. Because I have another aim as well. I would like, once I have made my wheelchair, to be able to produce, well, a recipe if not an exact plan, for how to make one of these for yourself if you want. 

Mobility devices are expensive, and are only designed to last five years. Usually, when they stop working or fail, you then have to scrap the whole thing and start from scratch. These costs, and the limitations if you can’t afford them, are distinctly political. 

In the absence of being able to change the world, cure illness and disability, and render humanity from the sickness of capitalism, I’m going to try and make an affordable, upgradeable, open source wheelchair, capable of modification. And tell you how to make one too.

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