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Student-designed wheelchair makes it easier for athletes to maneuver

Melissa Mitchell, News Editor


Eric Larson crouched down next to wheelchair basketball player Brandi Zimmerman
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by Kwame Ross
Eric 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.

CHAMPAIGN, 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 marketplace.

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 classification.

And basketball players aren’t the only ones who could benefit from using the chair. “It would be great for any court sports,” Frogley said.

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.