A light wheelchair for rolling in the sand

Posted: May 26, 2003

Ever since an accident left her paralyzed from the waist down, Nahara Rodriguez has needed a lift to get into the water at the beach.

Her wheelchair's wheels sink into the sand, so she can't roll to the surf.

That may change soon, thanks to a beach wheelchair designed by local high school students.

The new chair, designed by students from William Penn Charter School, is easy to maneuver in sand and water. It is collapsible, less obtrusive, and, most important, cheaper than existing beach wheelchairs.

In May 2001, teacher Randy Granger gave his Design Science students, all in the ninth through 12th grades at Penn Charter, the challenge of developing an inexpensive, beach-friendly wheelchair. Now, the school is applying for a permanent patent for the design. The finished product could sell for less than $200, Granger said; the average beach wheelchair currently on the market can cost several thousand dollars.

Seventeen students in the class spent a month working on the design. They were divided into three groups: collapsibility, water access and propulsion. They collaborated with handicapped students from Widener Memorial School, particularly Rodriguez, who is now a sophomore at Temple University.

Matthew Volk, 20, a member of the collapsibility team and now a sophomore at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, said his team had to look at how "to make the frame light and easy to collapse."

At first, the frame was made up of rails that would slide into each other, but that idea was ruled out because saltwater could clog them and prevent easy sliding, Volk said.

One day, as he was folding the frames of his eyeglasses, he realized the wheelchair could be maneuvered in the same way, he said. His team used a single-axle hinge that would be "exceptionally unlikely" to jam, Volk said.

It was left to the water access and propulsion teams to figure out the rest. They realized that small bowl-shaped disks, or skids, with little wheels on the bottom could replace the traditional front wheels on the wheelchair. The skids, which are removable, could prevent sinking and could easily move in the sand, while the balls at the bottom would enable the wheelchair to move easily on concrete surfaces.

The back wheels are large, like traditional wheelchairs', and they can be popped off, said John Peet, 17, a member of the propulsion team. The seat is a long beach chair.

"We designed it so that you could push it on your own," said Vince Johnson, 17, a member of the collapsibility team.

Throughout the design stages, the class consulted with Widener Memorial School and the Therapeutic and Rehabilitative Services division at Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington.

Nahara Rodriguez at Widener was used as a case study, Granger said.

"We designed to meet her needs," he said.

Rodriguez, now 19, used to love to swim before an auto accident in 1992 fractured her spine and put her in a wheelchair. Six months after surgery to stabilize her back, she began swimming again, using only her arms to move in the water. She loves to go to the beach, she said, so she had plenty of ideas on how to improve the Penn Charter students' design.

The students asked her questions about such things as seating position and how to easily push through the sand, Rodriguez said.

"When they came over and [showed] sketches, I thought, 'Wow, this is very cool,' " she said. "I thought it was a heck of a good idea."

Once the consultations were done, the school got a provisional patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office last July; the students were listed as the inventors.

In August, Penn Charter received a $24,400 grant from Ronald McDonald House Charities to cover the cost of the patent application and construction of the final prototype.

Since then, a series of steps had to be taken to apply for a permanent patent. The patent attorney had to do research to see which parts of the wheelchair design could be patented, Granger said. The students' drawings had to be converted to mechanical drawings that would be part of the permanent patent application. With the drawings, a prototype had to be made.

That was done by a team at Harry Shaw Model Maker in Shamong, Burlington County, based on mechanical drawings made by Frank Verona, president of Verona Design in Yardley, in November.

The students "did a great job figuring out what could be done and how it could be done," said John Kerby, president of Harry Shaw Model Maker.

Verona said, "I think they are geniuses. I have never seen a collaboration of talent by kids at that age. I am ready to hire them all tomorrow because they showed real enthusiasm and talent."

Granger said none of the Widener students had tested the chair yet, but he planned to take it to them this week to see whether they could get in and out easily.

Once the testing of the prototype is finished, there may be further modifications. Then, with a permanent patent, manufacturing could begin. Preliminary estimates show that the wheelchair could be sold for less than $200, Granger said. The wheelchairs could be bought by individuals or rented out to beachgoers, said Tara Miller, 18, a member of the water access team.

Rodriguez said she would buy one and thinks many others would too.

Currently, "maybe a lot of [disabled] people won't go to the beach because they think they can't go in the sand," she said. "Now they can."

Contact staff writer Aparna Surendran at 215-854-2795 or asurendran@phillynews.com.

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