Mobility Usability

Last weekend we went to visit my boyfriend Ian’s grandparents in Northern California. The weather was warm up there and we wanted to go outside and enjoy the sunshine. We took his 82 year old grandfather outside, but, as he is in a wheelchair, we could only go so far as the deck.

He sits in a simple hospital wheelchair and pulls himself around with one foot. he can move around but the slightest bump or incline prevents him from passing through the door alone, rolling onto the patio from the deck and many other simple spacial changes.

A few years ago he received a Frontier wheelchair, touted to be one of the highest performing all terrain mobility wheelchairs on the market. has 6 wheels, can turn on a dime, can climb curbs, can lift up, tilt forward, move about and has a top speed of something like 20 miles an hour (a bit scary if you ask me).

This wheelchair costs anywhere from $15,000 – 30,000 after all the pieces are put together and additional features are assembled. Ian’s grandfather would love the mobility it would offer him, but his polio affected muscles are not able to manipulate any of the controls – the switches are too stiff. Of course there is a long list of problems with this wheelchair that prevent this individual from enjoying more freedom, but this one thing really irked me.

Each time we visit, he suggests trying to get in the chair one more time. This time when we pulled it out the tires were flat. Ian pulled out the pump and set about inflating them.

The tires are 8 to 10 inches in diameter. The wheelchair surrounds them tightly with sharp metal parts that threaten to scrape or pinch if you get your hand in too far. The valve, we found, for inflating the tires, is behind the tire – reachable only through a small space.

Imagine an elderly couple trying to inflate these tires. Impossible!

Each person in need of a wheelchair needs a specific solution tailored to their unique needs. That said, it seems like there are multitudes of usability improvements to be made that would greatly increase the utility, mobility and happieness of chair users. Starting with the inflation valve on each of the tires.

From an engineering perspective this chair is a great improvement over the simple little hospital chair. From a usability perspective, it is a nightmare.


About calliewheeler

Callie is an enthusiastic proponent of user centered design and usability research and discovery. Her passions lie in social entrepreneurship and experience design.

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