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makes it easier for athletes to maneuver
Mitchell, News Editor
photo to enlarge
by Kwame Ross
Larson, right, was part of an industrial design class
that created the Balance Sport Wheelchair, which was
designed to provide wheelchair athletes with greater
control and maneuverability on the court. Senior Brandi
Zimmerman used the chair on the basketball courts
and provided feedback for Larson’s design team.
Ill. – Dribbling, passing and shooting could become much smoother
moves for wheelchair basketball players if a student-designed chair
featuring a hands-free braking and turning system makes its way to the
Created as part of a class project by a team of industrial
design students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,
the Balance Sport Wheelchair was designed to provide wheelchair athletes
with greater control and maneuverability on the court. With the new
design, the athlete’s body essentially functions as the mechanical
braking system for the chair, which features a segmented seatback and
modified bicycle disc brakes attached to the wheels. To turn, the athlete
leans hard into a side of the seatback; to slow or bring the chair to
a stop, the athlete sits straight back, forcing both sides of the seatback
to activate the brakes.
Eric Larson, a senior from Pecatonica, Ill., said the wheelchair is
the outgrowth of a class assignment by former U. of I. industrial design
professor Ki-Chol Nam to design a line of sports equipment. Larson was
part of a team, which also included Ricky Biddle, Ben Shao and Austin
Cliff (all now U. of I. graduates). Larson’s team chose to focus
on designing a better sports chair after observing practice sessions
of the university’s Fighting
Illini Wheelchair Basketball teams.
“They used to practice in the gym right across the street from
our studio,” Larson said. “We were amazed at what they could
do, but at the same time, we saw a lot of problems. Because of how rough
they were, they were always crashing.”
The Balance Sport Wheelchair addresses that problem, Larson said, on
a couple of fronts. Because the hands-free braking and turning system
gives athletes better control, collisions – and resulting injuries
– can be minimized.
The chair also features an ergonomically correct seating and strapping
system that goes beyond what’s currently commercially available.
For Mike Frogley, the head coach of the U. of I. men’s and women’s
wheelchair basketball teams, the real measure of the chair’s value
is that “it will take great athletes and make them better.
“The chair introduces a new element in how athletes move on the
court,” Frogley said. “Currently there are no lateral movements.
A player has to stop and turn slightly. Every time you have to take
your hand off the ball, you’re at a disadvantage.” With
the Balance Sport Wheelchair, he said, “you can start to use shifts
in your trunk, which opens you up to improved basketball skills, whether
passing, dribbling or shooting.”
Another feature that appeals to players on the U. of I. team –
who’ve tested prototypes of the chair – is the chair’s
adaptability. Frogley said the sport includes three classification levels,
based on players’ physical capabilities. Level 3 players have
control over all of their muscle groups; Level 2 players have control
of arm, shoulder and torso muscles; while Level 1 players have control
only of arm and shoulder muscles. The student-designed chair can be
retrofitted to meet the needs of individual players regardless of their
And basketball players aren’t the only ones who could benefit
from using the chair. “It would be great for any court sports,”
After observing test runs of the chair by his team members, Frogley
acknowledged that “there will be a bit of a learning curve involved,
which will depend on the level of function of the individual, plus the
athleticism of the individual.” But overall, the coach believes
the new chair could “take the sport in a whole different way.”
“The sport has always changed and adapted as new designs have
appeared,” said Frogley, who noted that when the nation’s
first collegiate wheelchair basketball team was organized at the U.
of I. in the late 1940s “the original guys used hospital chairs.”
He said the last major innovation occurred in 1998 when a fifth wheel
was added to improve stability.
Other refinements can be traced back to Illinois, which has long been
recognized for its pioneering educational and athletic programs for
students with disabilities.
Past technological improvements developed at the U. of I. have included
the “Illinois Wheel” – a pneumatic tire with improved
traction, and a lightweight, stainless steel chair used by athletes
competing in a variety of adapted sports.
Like its predecessors, the Balance Sport Wheelchair is designed for
use by athletes competing in a range of sports, from tennis to track
and field events, Larson said.
Development of the chair was funded by an E-team grant from the National
Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance. The grant proposal was
sponsored by the university’s Product Interaction Research Laboratory,
with the lab’s director, William Bullock, serving as faculty sponsor
and principal investigator. The university's Office
of Technology Management has filed for patent protection and is
working to find licensing partners to bring the wheelchair to the marketplace.