Monday, August 31, 2009

Idaho man invents way to get wheelchairs onto rough terrain

From The Idaho Statesman:

Pat Dougherty's own life-altering accident led to a creative innovation that may help others. (He is pictured with his two children.)

The Boisean's FreeWheel attachment enables people who use wheelchairs to move safely and confidently in the outdoors.

Frustrated by the expense of sport wheelchairs, which can costs thousands of dollars, and by the instability of standard wheelchairs when moving over curbs, gravel and uneven surfaces, Dougherty came up with a solution.

"I had a hard time rolling in the backyard with my wheelchair," said Dougherty, who broke his neck during a 2003 motocross race.

Going uphill was slow and wheeling was hard on his shoulders. He found that even a half-inch bump on the terrain could throw him out of his chair.

He used his personal experiences and mechanical engineering skills to design the FreeWheel attachment and storage post.

"My idea was to make it practical. Given that I am a quadriplegic, it has to be easy and simple to use," he said.

The device is essentially a large wheel that clamps to the front of a chair at the foot rest and can spin 360 degrees.

Once the FreeWheel is in position, the two small casters on the standard chair are lifted off the ground, transforming a four-wheel chair into a three-wheeler.

When not in use, the device can be removed and placed on the back of the wheelchair.

With the new wheel, Dougherty moves confidently and safely over challenging terrain. The FreeWheel works well on the Greenbelt, over Downtown curbs and on sand and gravel, he said.

"You can easily get stuck way deeper in the woods now," he said.

Added benefits are that he is less fatigued and is not constantly looking down for obstacles. He now looks up and enjoys the outdoor scenery.

"It is absolutely amazing to get outside and enjoy the outdoors with family without being a burden to everyone else to get you around," Dougherty said.

During the winter, Dougherty skis using a sit-ski. He said because of the FreeWheel, he independently gets to and from his van to the ski lodge. He even pushes through the snow on his own.

The FreeWheel is manufactured in Boise and sells for $499. Dougherty hopes to someday mass-produce it, which would lower the price.

Dougherty is offering a FreeWheel demo to any of the women competing in the wheelchair portion of the St. Luke's Women's Fitness Celebration 5K race on Sept. 26.

"The FreeWheel opens up a huge amount of opportunities to access areas you just can't with a regular wheelchair," Dougherty said.