nordic bionics
Nordic Bionics

Redefining design fundamentals of wheelchairs

According to a study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO), 75 million people across the globe require a wheelchair daily. This constitutes 1% of total world population- just 5 million shy of Germany’s entire population.

As a progressive society, it is imperative to address the needs of people requiring access to assistive technology. The broader term ‘Assistive technology’ encapsulates products that support and/or improve an individual’s mobility and physical/sensory functions. These products include wheelchairs, exoskeletons, prostheses, walkers and other devices that facilitate normal functioning.

We recently teamed up with Jonas Grau Thomsen, founder of Nordic Bionics and a strong advocate of change in the wheelchair and advanced mobility devices industry. Jonas has a strong vision for a revolution in this industry and explains how one can have a positively impact with the right approach.

Wheelchairs and the lack of user-centricity

"I always knew that; at some point I would not be able to walk on my own. About 10 years ago I understood that time was about to run out for me to walk without relying on assistive technology. That’s when I identified gaps in current wheelchairs available in the market and the need for several modifications,” began Jonas.

Research conducted by the Georgia Institute of Technology revealed that on an average, a user spends 10-13 hours in a day in a wheelchair. The lack of mobility is linked to other health complications such as shoulder pain, development of pressure ulcers, muscle atrophy, cardiovascular diseases, and obesity to name a few.

Weight is one of the major pain points associated with current wheelchairs and is a glaring consequence of user decentricity. “The wheelchair that I currently use is the lightest ones available on the market. Weighing just 4.2 kilograms; almost 8 kgs lighter than my previous wheelchair. I am quite lucky to have access to a carefully engineered assistive device. Unfortunately, not everyone has this luxury as the industry is still very old fashioned with a one-track approach. Companies seem to think ‘if it isn’t broken, so why fix it’, and that’s not entirely true. Lightweighting, using the right materials has an important role in the future of this industry,” explained Jonas.

People Centered Model

Traditionally, Assistive Technology (AT) devices have taken a universal ‘one size fits all’ approach without considering diversity among humans. Products are designed to help users simply participate in activities, while serving as substitutes to body functions.

“Apart from physical limitations, a user of AT must overcome several other mental and social challenges such as overcoming stigma, acceptance of self-identity. There exists a constant interaction between the user, their environment, and the assistive technology in use. If they sense lack of support or negative perceptions from the environment and difficulties in merging the AT with their self-identity, the support device is frequently rejected or abandoned. For wheelchairs, it is increasingly important to have a design that makes the user proud and happy to use it,” explained Jonas.

The goal of any AT should be to enable the user to rehabilitate, adapt and adjust to their new life. It should support users in positively pursuing desired goals, physical/psychological well-being, reintegrating in a social setting, building positive self-esteem and attitude towards oneself and others.

WHO has defined a 5P model which explains the factors that interact and define people’s experience and access to ATs. The components of this model help designers in defining comprehensive solutions for users.

When considering the design of wheelchairs, it is imperative to consider 4Ps (Product, Provision, Personnel, Policy) which indirectly contribute to the well-being of People (5th P).This model highlights the importance of engaging users in the product development journey, rather than viewing them simply as recipients of the technology.

“As a leading materials and solutions company, Mitsubishi Chemical Group (MCG) can directly support users by being involved in the wheelchair design process combined with their diverse portfolio of lightweight composites and part production technologies,” continues Jonas. The success of a people centered innovation model is largely dependent on the stakeholders involved in the innovation journey. As a leading material innovator, MCG will be at the forefront of leading innovation in wheelchairs.

Principles of Assistive Technology Access (PAT)

As previously discussed, the risk of abandoning assistive devices increases when the user is not involved in the design and selection process. In order to mitigate risk of abandonment and support access to ATs, six different principles for accessing the devices have been defined. These principles include accessibility, affordability, adaptability, availability, acceptability, and quality. They are also relevant for wheelchairs and supports development of a user centric wheelchair to a great extent.

PAT answers several questions and indirectly support in defining parameters for the ideal wheelchair. Figure below indicates the principles:

Lightweighting and mental health

Practicality of wheelchairs depends on its portability and maneuverability. Some clear ways of achieving this is by reducing weight. A lightweight wheelchair is easy to transport up and down staircases and demands less energy and efforts from users to maneuver. A study suggests that adults with disabilities are five times more likely to experience mental distress than adults without it. The difficulty in undertaking basic tasks such as entering a car, taking the stairs, accessing public transport, or even going out for some fresh air contributes to the distress.

A lightweight wheelchair contributes towards improving mental health and has additional psychosocial benefits. It stimulates independence by making it easier to maneuver in public, carry in cars and engage in sports. This allows users to be more confident with an added independence, facilitating a connection with society. “At the moment, ultra-light wheelchairs can be quite pricey and unaffordable for a normal user. On an average these wheelchairs can cost as high as $8,000. My goal is to work closely with MCG and make lightweight wheelchairs accessible and affordable to a normal user,” explained Jonas.

Mitsubishi Chemical Group (MCG) as drivers of change

Wheelchairs are the most popular assistive devices and have the highest scope for improvement. Approximately 90% people with needs in high income countries have access to wheelchairs. Despite these figures, the percentage of people whose wheelchair is designed to fit, posture, is safe and sturdy, is light in weight and affordable is significantly low. A well fitted wheelchair helps prevent complications such as pressure sores, postural issues, urinary tract infections, digestive problems, and respiratory issues.

Combining our material, design and production and expertise with Jonas Grau Thomsen’s experience as a long-term wheelchair user will result in a people centric, lightweight and durable wheelchair at an affordable price point.

“A wheelchair with lightweight composites has several benefits. It can be made highly modular with features such as ‘dynamic seating’ (easily reclinable backrests), minimal pinch points (pinching of limbs while reclining) and weight shedding by replacing metal components. With an array of superior advanced materials in the portfolio, Mitsubishi Chemical Group is positioned well to realize wheelchairs for long-term users and cement their position as Possibility Providers,” concluded Jonas.