More MS news articles for Jan 2002

Stair climbing wheelchair shows promise


Tuesday, December 11, 2001

When I first heard about it a year ago, I blew it off as an unrealistic fantasy story.

A wheelchair that climbs stairs?

Impossible. Not in my lifetime, I thought.

But I was wrong.

Progress is being made on the IBOT, "the futuristic, stair-climbing, beach-crossing, body-lifting wheelchair" that is now in clinical trials, recent news reports tell me.

New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson Inc. plans to market the revolutionary wheelchair in 2002, for between $20,000 and 25,000 apiece.

I may not sit in this wheelchair in my lifetime. At least not my financial lifetime. Christopher Reeve maybe, but not myself and your rank-and-file disabled person.

The IBOT was invented by Dean Kamen, best known recently for his invention of a scooter with the name "IT" or "Ginger."

Earlier this month, Kamen unveiled on national television the "Segway Human Transporter," a one-person, battery-powered scooter that supporters say will revolutionize transportation much like the automobile did a century ago.

News reports said it is difficult to fall from the scooter or even knock it over, due to gyroscopes that work to keep it upright and discern where the rider wants to go.

It is not targeted for those who use wheelchairs, however: Riders stand upright, facing forward over the invention's single axle, navigating with a bicycle-like handlebar.

So we will have to settle for the IBOT, officially named the Independence 3000 IBOT Transporter.

The IBOT, also loaded with gyroscopes, can climb up and descend stairs. It can move over obstacles. It can balance on two wheels and move as the user shifts weight. It can put users in an elevated position.

A report in New Mobility magazine says those users of more standard wheelchairs who have tried IBOT and who are raised to eye level with standing people get an "emotional wallop."

"It is a standing world," a wheelchair user was quoted in the New Mobility story. "You get accustomed to sitting down but when you get to eye level with everyone else, well, you notice it." The wheelchair user was an engineer who helps with the clinical trials of the IBOT at the University of Pittsburgh.

"It is really something to be up and balanced and interacting with colleges," he said.

The university studies are to determine if the wheelchair will enhance employment opportunities for people with disabilities. The results are to be sent to the federal Food and Drug Administration, which is to also analyze IBOT.

Kamen's own privately-held New England company, DEKA Research and Development, is also running more tests.

New Mobility said in its story that Kamen, 50, rode an IBOT around the White House after former President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Technology in January.

The magazine said Kamen attracted international attention "when he piloted the chair up the stairs of the Eiffel Tower" in Paris.

The IBOT news has been exciting and encouraging to people with and without disabilities, especially those who want to join, or rejoin, this "standing world."

I sure would enjoy having an IBOT or at least giving it a test ride.

However, there are still some major issues and questions still to be answered:

"The biggest questions about the IBOT may ultimately come down to two unresolved issues," according to the New Mobility article. "Will insurance companies pay for the IBOT and how will they determine who qualifies?"