Raising wheelchair users’ quality of life
BERGAMO, Italy — After nearly 20 years working with wheelchair-bound youngsters, Mario Vigentini wanted to revolutionize their quality of life, inventing a device that raises up users so they are face-toface with those standing.
The Italian drew inspiration from the Segway — the twowheeled, self-balancing, electric vehicle that allows visitors to nip around cities without walking — and came up with the “MarioWay”, a hands-free, two-wheeled kneeling chair.
With its high seat, it allows users to do everything from ordering a coffee at a bar to plucking a book off a high shelf.
The Italian government was so impressed it proudly showed off the chair to the G-7 transport ministers in June.
The aim was to create “a tool of social integration”, Vigentini said at his headquarters in Bergamo near Milan.
The 45-year-old found working with young people with mental and physical disabilities “an extraordinary adventure”, but was disheartened by the prejudice they faced.
“At best, people approached them like a child,” he said, as if because they were sitting closer to the ground they were somehow more infantile.
Racking his brains for a solution, he came up with the idea of “trying to put an ergonomic seat — like those from the Nordic countries that were very fashionable in the 1990s — on a Segway”.
“Nine out of ten people I talked to about this idea looked at me as if I came from another planet,” he said.
But he was persuaded to enter the idea in a 2012 startup competition in Naples, where he made it to the final.
Buoyed by that feat, Vigentini set up a team to study the ergonomics involved and brought in a dozen disabled people as collaborators.
Users of traditional wheelchairs are seated so that “the organs in the upper part of the trunk are compressed”, while “almost the whole weight rests on the ischium” — the lower and back part of the hip bone.
This position “aggravates the pathologies of people with disabilities and results in other issues; digestive, respiratory, urinary or circulatory,” he said, adding it also causes leg muscles to waste away.
But for users of Vigentini’s invention, “the upper part of the trunk is straightened”, strengthening muscles which go unused in traditional wheelchairs.
The chair can go up to 20 kilometers an hour on a battery life of 30 km.
It is equipped with “sensors that read the position of the body”, so that “if I move my upper body slightly forward, the MarioWay advances slightly,” said Flaviano Tarducci, the company’s business development manager.
Mario Vigentini (right), founder of “MarioWay”