It has always confused me why wheelchair technology has not progressed with other mobility technology, be it prosthetics, cars or bikes, or at least to the same extent. Indeed in most mobility technologies, we have seen developments in the automotive industry reflected by developments in other mobility industries, and yet at first glance, it does not appear to have happened with wheelchairs.
If we look at the situation over the last 50 years, the car industry was focused on crude, heavy materials, with products built from a high volume of parts. Prosthetic limbs are another example, which were heavy, unwieldy and uncomfortable objects effectively alien to the user. However, the cutting edge of both these products now focus on customized carbon fibre, lightweight construction, reduced parts and ergonomic design. Bikes too, have moved from heavy steel frames to lightweight, streamlined carbon fibre units weighing only a few kilograms.
Why, therefore, has the mainstream wheelchair industry stuck to a concept of rigid steel frames with panels and sections attached to the frame, and not embraced new technology? I began to look into this topic and spoke to Andrew Slorance, Managing Director of Carbon Black wheelchairs. I discovered that in fact this is a question Andrew has been asking himself since the age of 14, when he suffered a paralysing spinal injury. He describes going into bike shops and wondering why you could order a fully customised carbon fibre bike, essentially an item purely for pleasure, and yet with an essential item such as a wheelchair, this was not an option.
It is a question that several years later in his adult life, led Andrew to leave his job to focus 100% on developing a new wheelchair, taking up these design considerations and attempting to bring wheelchair technology into the 21stCentury.
There were two huge obstacles to Andrew’s vision. The first was the status quo. The development of wheelchairs is focused on keeping costs low, with the majority of parts made to one design at very low cost in China. These are then sold around the world with no real competition, and no investment in development. No one was willing to consider ‘reinventing the wheelchair’. The sole reason that any mobility industry has developed is because of competition, whether this be in the commercial market or in sports, such as bike racing or Formula 1 and other motorsports.
This led Andrew to the second key problem; finding someone with the experience to build a new wheelchair. Andrew was looking to design a fully customised carbon fibre wheelchair, using a monocoque structure to reduce parts and weight and to increase strength, with very low or no maintenance needs. In one instance working with a world rally championship car development team, they explained that Andrew’s product was the most difficult product they had worked on, because of the focus on fewer parts, with better design. However at high initial cost to himself, Andrew persevered.
Andrew’s journey to find a developer eventually led him to the pinnacle of automotive design, Formula 1, and a relationship was formed whereby his wheelchair could be developed and built to the ideals he had set out to realise. When you consider the way Formula 1 has influenced car technology over the years, this was clearly the right home for his ideas.
Now Andrew has designed the Carbon Black wheelchair, a fully customised, lightweight and ergonomic wheelchair that has the familiarity of a standard wheelchair, but without many of the drawbacks that Andrew felt were being ignored by the wheelchair industry. The wheelchair has been available for purchase since late 2013 and has received an overwhelming ‘Wow’ from wheelchair users.
As a clinical negligence solicitor, my particular interest in this product is not just what it does for wheelchair technology, but what it does for the injured user, and potentially what it can do for victims of clinical negligence who have suffered a paralysing injury.
Firstly, the Carbon Black is very lightweight. Many new wheelchair users struggle with the energy and effort needed to use a standard wheelchair, particularly if there are secondary injuries. This can lead to users having reduced mobility and independence because the prospect of using the wheelchair is just too daunting. A lightweight carbon fibre wheelchair means that users are able to get back to regaining their independence as soon as possible, and continue with their lives.
In any clinical negligence claim, this must be the key focus. An injured person must be returned to the position of independence that they were in, as much as possible, before the injury. Not only does a wheelchair of this design improve the chances of this happening, but by increasing the ability to be independent, it also reduces the need for additional care.
Secondly, it is fully customised to the user. The focus is not on someone using the wheelchair as a piece of equipment, but on the wheelchair being a part of the user’s day in as unconscious a manner as possible, which again improves independence.
Finally, it’s aesthetically pleasing. In speaking to Andrew, we both agreed that it wasn’t clear why wheelchairs weren’t allowed to look good? As a piece of technology, and simply as a consumer product, it is very attractive. Andrew felt daunted when he was given his first wheelchair at 14, and didn’t want to leave the house with it. A wheelchair user doesn’t stop caring about aesthetics once they become paralysed (indeed they should not either), but the wheelchair industry needs to wake up to this issue.
At least for now, Andrew and the Carbon Black wheelchair are seeking to move wheelchairs forward to a point they deserve to be at, and improve wheelchairs not just for the sake of development, but for the sake of wheelchair users.