Olivia Shivas is a Pou Tiaki reporter and full-time wheelchair user.
JUDGEMENT: When I saw an email about a “revolutionary” new wheelchair, I thought it would be fun to give it a try. Plus, how often would I get this opportunity as someone who actually uses a wheelchair?
The inventors wanted me to try it so badly, they flew from Palmerston North to Auckland – with the wheelchair – so I could try it.
The OctalWheels have been a labor of love for mechanical engineering couple Dr. claire and dr. Rory Flemmer.
They started building wheelchairs 37 years ago when they were based in the US.
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“There was an old lady who couldn’t get her wheelchair all the way up the ramp, and we helped her,” said Rory. He believed they could improve her “crappy” wheelchair.
They started with a 4WD wheelchair, but it wouldn’t be usable for everyday wheelchair users.
“We initially approached it the way two very stupid academics would approach it,” said Claire.
“So we looked at the literature and thought, ‘What would we like in a wheelchair?'”
They realized that the wheelchair had to be suitable for indoor and outdoor use.
Claire said they were starting to move away from a “practical solution and less of an academic-type theoretical solution.”
It takes 23 prototypes and what they have come up with is impressive.
OctalWheels is powered by muscle, not motor or battery.
It has three gears, as well as an autopilot mode – which has a cross-slope control function and a “hill climber” mode – which prevents the wheelchair from rolling backwards down a hill.
Footpaths are designed to slope down to the road for water drainage. But if you are a manual wheelchair user, one arm will usually get more tired than the other to roll in a straight line.
And as a wheelchair user, I certainly noticed that.
As I drove around the Massey University campus in Albany, Auckland, it took me a while to adjust to the handles popping out of the wheel you grip to move the chair.
My arms are used to the back and forth motion of a standard wheelchair and I picked that up quickly, but getting used to the brakes took a while.
I was also too short and small for this particular wheelchair model, but the wheels themselves can be swapped on other wheelchair frames as long as a bracket fits.
But it feels like you’re rolling a longer distance for less energy and effort. The research data of the Flemish people show that the wheels are three times more economical than standard wheelchair wheels.
One of the first things any wheelchair user wants to know is weight. Each OctalWheels wheel weighs 7 kg. In comparison, a standard wheel weighs less than 1 kg.
A lighter wheelchair is easier to take with you in the car or plane; should I ever need an Uber or jump into a friend’s car, my seat folds up easily and packs into the trunk.
Despite both being able to walk, Claire and Rory take the OctalWheels for a spin around the block twice a day to continue field testing.
Claire is a lecturer at Massey University and Rory calls herself a “wheelchair maker”; he retired from Massey University five years ago, but continues to work on various engineering projects.
Claire acknowledges that the OctalWheels are “hugely pricey” at $25,800, and they’re marketing it to people who can fund it themselves.
Rory explains that because it’s only just launched and has only been on the market for a few weeks, “it costs a lot at first.”
And while they have had an initial meeting with Enable – the government’s assessor and provider of mobility equipment – there have been no further discussions.
They said they had a lot of visitors to their website, but no sales yet.
When asked who the wheelchair is for, Claire replies: “Moderately wealthy, young people who understand that they are in a wheelchair for a long time and that they have to look after their health.”
While I realize the cost of a new invention is expensive, most people with disabilities rely on government funding for their mobility equipment through ACC or Whaikaha – Ministry of Disabled People, fundraising, or a lottery grant.
Disabled people also earn less with the unemployment rate of disabled people being more than double compared to those who are not disabled. It will be a struggle to find enough disabled people who can afford it and to create demand to lower the price.
For me, I need a wheelchair that can help me navigate up ramps and ramps. Although I have good hand function to use the OctalWheels, I don’t have the muscles.
But while it may not be the perfect wheelchair for me, it will be suitable for someone else.
Someone who wants to train at high speed and travel long distances in their wheelchair – and can spend $25,800.