Wheeling ahead

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By With the introduction of features like the joystick, infrared sensors and speech recognition, the wheelchair is all set for a makeover. T.V. Jayan reports
  • Published 2.04.07
Jon Pearlman (left) demonstrates the wheelchair the Pittsburgh team is designing (Pic: Ramakant Kushawaha)

Engineer Subramaniam Sairaman is a concerned man these days. His firm, MTAB Automation, sells advanced technology products and is readying to market yet another product — an intelligent wheelchair. Sairaman is not worried about the quality of the wheelchair — he is just unsure if the Indian market is ready for it. After all, this home-built automated wheelchair has jumped several generations of wheelchair design to become one of the finest mobility equipment in the world.

Apart from taking commands from the rider through a joystick strapped on the armrest, the battery-operated chair navigates its path in line with the instructions given by someone sitting in a remote control room or walking alongside, using a wireline. Better still, in a hospital corridor, it can propel itself following a distinct colour strip and even negotiate curves and turns, thanks to infrared sensors fitted under the chair.

“It’s best among its class,” says Sairaman, the chief operating officer of MTAB Automation, located at Perungudi electrical and electronics industrial estate near Chennai. Costing less than Rs 50,000, MTAB’s wheelchair is at least two-thirds cheaper than any comparable mobility device in the world. This price, too, may drop once orders start coming in, hopes Sairaman.

The new wheelchair is an offshoot of an unmanned ground vehicle that military engineers at the Bangalore-based the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (CAIR) had developed a few years ago. CAIR later transferred the technology to an army workshop as well as to MTAB which further improved upon it, keeping ergonomics and aesthetics in mind.

The MTAB wheelchair may soon add a yet another feature — speech recognition.

While mobility still remains a dream for most of India’s millions of physically disabled people, those who have been lucky have had to mainly “wheel around” in wheelchairs manufactured by a public sector firm, Artificial Limbs Manufacturing Corporation of India (Alimco), headquartered in Kanpur. Of 1950 vintage, these chairs were designed on the basis of those produced by the now defunct US wheelchair maker, Everest and Jennings .

“The problem with the wheelchairs here is that they are not appropriate for the Indian environment; they are more suited for hospitals. Wheelchairs in India need to be designed to meet the people’s needs in and around their homes and worksites,” says Jon Pearlman, a researcher at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) of Pittsburgh University, US. Pearlman and his team have for the last seven years been trying to develop better and cheaper wheelchairs. They have already designed a few prototypes, supplied mainly to Alimco, but none has hit the Indian market yet.

“The wheelchair is not merely a chair with wheels,” says Nekram Upadhyay, who heads the department of assistive technology at Indian Spinal Injuries Centre, New Delhi. Different wheelchair riders, even with the same kind of disabilities such as paraplegia, multiple sclerosis, or cerebral palsy can have widely different ways of sitting and pushing, he says.

In India, while designs of several other assistive devices have undergone a sea change, “there hasn’t been any significant change in that of wheelchairs,” says Pearlman.

Nitin Gogia, a paraplegic for more than 11 years, puts in succinctly. “Myopia is also a disability. How would it be if a person suffering from it is asked to wear spectacles weighing 5 kg through the day,” he asks.

The non-availability of powered wheelchairs in the country has forced Navin Gulia, a young officer who left the Indian Army 12 years ago following an accident, to turn to the Chinese firm, Shanghai Wisking Electric Machine Co. Many Chinese and Taiwanese wheelchairs, both electric and non-electric, are available in India these days.

Take the case of Deepa Malik, a 37-year-old spastic paralytic who refuses to buckle under despite everything. Having lost sensation below her waist to spinal cord tumour eight years ago, Malik won a silver medal in a pan-Asian sporting event for specially abled people in Kuala Lumpur last year. The wife of a retired Army officer, she runs a garden restaurant in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra, the proceeds of which go to fund the education of 20-odd orphans and school dropouts. Malik is now getting ready for a cross-country bike rally. A user of the Alimco chair for a considerable period of time, she had to struggle to carry her collapsible wheelchair around because it was so heavy.

“But I have been really lucky,” Malik told KnowHow. Till last year, the Army provided her with an orderly to push her 40-kg wheelchair. With her husband retiring last year, she now uses a lighter wheelchair that a Gurgaon-based firm, Multivac, designed and built.

For a change, things are looking better on the wheelchair technology front. Apart from the MTAB wheelchair, a few other power chairs are being designed in India . The Chennai-based Callidai Motors has been in the field for a while. Multivac, too, has introduced some new designs for both electric and non-electric wheelchairs. “Our wheelchairs are made with lighter and stronger materials,” says Sathya Bokkasam of Multivac. Unlike most imported power wheelchairs, the Multivac models use push buttons rather than joysticks for control.

Pearlman’s team has now come up with the second prototype of the “Power Chair”. This wheelchair can climb a step or two and even negotiate unpaved roads. With assistance from several patients who come to ISIC as volunteers, the engineers have been studying the usage pattern of wheelchairs in India. “We attach a small data recorder to the wheels of their wheelchairs so that we know the usage patterns and how much distance they cover each day,” says Pearlman. “Similarly we provide them with cameras so that they can photograph the environment they move about in,” he adds.

The Worth Trust, working to help the disabled in Katpadi, Tamil Nadu, has been designing some of the most rugged and sturdy non-electric wheelchairs for the last three years. Structured on designs provided by the San Francisco State University-based WhirldWind Wheelchair International (WWI) — which has been helping developing countries to have better, suitable wheelchair designs at affordable prices — the Worth Trust has so far produced hundreds of wheelchairs and shipped them to Afghanistan . “We are planning to make these wheelchairs, costing nearly Rs 4,000, available in India soon,” says the managing director, Col (Retd) K. Radhakrishnan.

Another important project — also by Pittsburgh University — taking shape in the country is that of designing a paediatric wheelchair. “The paediatric wheelchairs available in India are simply scaled down versions of the adult ones,” says Pearlman. Children typically need much more postural support than adults do, as most of those with disability have cerebral palsy.

Typically, a paediatric wheelchair requires an adjustable seating system so that a physiotherapist or technologist can ensure the chair fits the user, says Emily Zipfel, another HERL researcher who leads the project. The seating system should allow for a tilt mechanism, to position the child from an upright active posture (for eating, playing, etc.) to a slant so that the child can relax. Moreover, because children grow quickly and their activities change rapidly, it is ideal to have a wheelchair that can be adjusted in size.