Innovative geared wheelchair looks to improve lives of those with disabilities

It looks and moves like a standard wheelchair, but one switch takes it to the next level.

It's called a geared wheelchair system and has a standard and a low gear.

"It's similar to shifting to a low gear for a bicycle when you're going up a hill," said UW-Milwaukee associate professor Brooke Slavens. "You move a little bit slower, but it makes the demands on the body much less."

The device changes how the hand rim moves in relationship to the wheel, making it easier for someone to maneuver, like going up a ramp, hill or over carpet.

Slavens said  such tasks on standard wheelchairs can have debilitating effects.

"Pain is a huge factor for these individuals, as well as arthritis, rotator cuff injuries and carpel tunnel because your arms aren't meant to propel and move your body," she said.

Slavens is the project's principal investigator and conducts research in a UWM mobility lab.

Using sensors, she and her team can track human movement to develop an effective device. Fifteen infrared cameras in the room capture an individual's motion, measuring live in 3D, muscle activity and energy use in each gear.

"We've been doing a lot of work with able-bodied individuals to make sure that it's working with them," said Slavens. "Our next step is to work with veterans from the Milwaukee VA."

The geared system works on any wheelchair as the wheels simply pop off.

It's unclear how much they'll cost because the device is still under research, but with no motor or computer system, the price is intended to be low.

"It's really important to me personally to be able to help individuals and to help them be able to have more of a pain free active lifestyle," she said.

The UWM research team is working with Illinois-based company Intelliwheels on the prototype. They hope to partner soon with an innovative manufacturer that can mass produce the geared wheelchair, making it commercially available.

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