Rais­ing wheel­chair users’ qual­ity of life

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WORLD -

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.

Eureka mo­ment

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.

AFP

Mario Vi­gen­tini (right), founder of “Mar­i­oWay”

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