Most people have a friend, a family member or a loved one who is limited in their movements due to a physical disability of some kind. Some are born with those disabilities while others become disabled after the onset of a debilitating disease, being the victim of a tragic accident or by being wounded during their service to our country. Yet, having a disability does not necessarily equate to being dysfunctional. Modern technology has led to those with even the most debilitating of diseases, think Stephen Hawking, to not only be functional but to give to others while enjoying life.
Merry Lynn Morris, a faculty member in the School of Dance and Theater at the University of Southern Florida, was affected by such a tragedy. Her father left the family home one day to run a quick errand and was in a tragic car accident. This accident left her father wheel chair bound for 21 years. Merry Lynn used the tragedy as a motivation to create an omni-directional, hands-free wheel chair, which gives those who are in wheel chairs the freedom and independence to move about in ways that most manual and powered wheel chairs simply do not allow. This remarkable innovation was patented on July 6, 2010 (see U.S. Patent No. 7,748,490) and is assigned to the University of Southern Florida.
The two YouTube videos tell Merry Lynn’s story.
Last November I met Merry Lynn at the USPTO Smithsonian Innovation Festival at the National Air and Space Museum in DC. I invited her invention to share her story, which she recently did. What follows is her story in her own words.
The idea for rolling dance/mobility chair emerged from two distinct motivations. One motivation was my experience as a caregiver to my father for many years (21 total). He was disabled from a traumatic car accident leaving him with permanent brain damage, a seizure disorder and significant issues of paralysis. For our family, it meant completely restructuring our lives. My mom, who is my hero and perpetual inspiration, cared for him with an unwavering sense of commitment and hope – she always looked for creative ways to improve the situation for our family, working towards embracing the new reality and moving forward. She herself is a visual artist and her artistic inclinations and ability to think outside of the box helped heal our family and get us through many challenges. She inspired my creativity with regard to reconceptualizing the design of wheelchairs, and seeing her perspective as spouse and primary caregiver provided me with an important perspective on addressing disability issues as a whole interactive, human and social condition. Disability effects everyone and we are all only “temporarily abled” at any given time. Many times, in design, the focus becomes solely on the disabled person’s needs as an independent, autonomous being, not taking into account the surrounding family, caregivers, friends and community who interact and (want to) connect with that person’s life.
The second motivation comes from my work as a choreographer and teacher with individuals with disabilities. In working with many individuals in wheelchairs, I began to conceive of other design ideas for the chair which might be more conducive for dance experience and enable additional interactive movement and expressive possibilities. In dance, we are generally concerned with movement precision and quality/texture – the “how” of the movement, not just the movement “goal” such as transporting a body in space from one destination to the next. When considering the wheelchair from a dance design perspective – a host of other priorities come to the forefront in terms of facilitating movement quality/texture. In particular, I noticed that the control system for most traditional chairs – hand to wheel propulsion or hand to joystick propulsion generally restricted other options for hand/arm use in space. There were also other missing movement dynamics which I wanted to create in the chair to enable a three dimensional experience of space. Adding height control, plus omnidirectionality, and seat rotation as well as a mobile control system create new three dimensional movement dynamics. I continue to look for ways to enhance the motion dynamics of the device and create intuitive, organic means of controlling it with the human body. The chair’s development, in some ways, is not unlike other types of “technological extensions” used in dance to enhance movement experience such as toe shoes, tap shoes and aerial silks. The experimentation process has consistently involved multiple perspectives and a variety of individuals with and without individuals have tested the existing prototype chair to provide input and feedback.
One of my other concerns in developing the device has also been a concern with the ways in which the wheelchair facilitates an individual’s long-term health. As a dance/movement practitioner with a kinesiology and movement science background, I constantly look at human movement experience with both art and science lenses. I worked for two years at an assistive living facility developing movement programming for the residents there. The chairs they utilized (often traditional manual chairs) did not assist in their circulation in any way by stimulating or enabling movement or supporting healthful postural positions. Instead, the individuals were usually hunched over with their heads dropped down sagging into their chairs when I would come into the room. In the development of the rolling dance/mobility chair, I have sought to embrace concerns of health (posture/alignment/circulation/conditioning effects) as well as concerns of an artistic nature (movement quality/dynamics, expressive relational interaction) with concerns of a social and functional nature.
Consider that in many situations of caregiving, the spouse, friend, and/or caregiver stands behind the individual pushing the chair. Or, if a power chair, attendant controls are also at the back of the chair. This makes human communication virtually impossible. It also distorts the relationship psycho-physically. Try talking or relating to someone who is behind you much of the time. It does not work very well. In the dance/mobility chair, one goal was to try to facilitate human relational interactions, such as walking side by side holding hands and talking/interacting in a seamless manner. Because of the mobile (smartphone) control, which can be worn on the body (making the individual hands-free) or held easily in one hand by the caregiver or individual, relationship is restored. Another point of emphasis, is the importance of height control in wheelchairs – the implementation of height control raises the disabled individual to a higher level of stature – literally. Otherwise, being in a seated position means being looked “down upon” by most standing individuals (and having elbows thrust in your face, etc.). Height change became of paramount importance in the design of this wheelchair for restoring eye contact between individuals as well as helping basic issues of reaching tasks, etc. Additionally, it enables the natural greeting exchange of hugging to happen more easily. When the person is lowered in space in a seated position, hugging the individual usually becomes a more awkward and less fulfilling experience for both individuals. There are many other power chairs with height control; however, the critical importance of a feature such as this from a psycho-social perspective has yet to be fully embraced as an absolute design necessity.
I think in large part the main focus of the “problem-solving” or innovating process has been to broadly and simultaneously consider human mobility from a creative, artistic, social, relational perspective which recognizes the importance of human movement experience as a critical formative force in shaping the identity and quality of life for individuals.
I first began the project by ordering segways and looking for ways in which seats could possibly be mounted to the segway. At the time (2005/06) segway technology was one of the closest existing technologies I found which could enable the individual to be “hands-free” by simply leaning their body to direct the motion of the device. Innovation and experimentation processes are rarely if ever linear in nature – my path of experimentation has involved multiple collaborators and multiple “rough draft” prototypes emerged before realizing the more complete design in this current prototype chair.
Of course, the innovation process, like the choreographic process, is never really done…
Once something has been created, there is a natural instinct to reflect upon its potential improvement and consider other embellishments and other possibilities. So, in this manner, the chair as a “product” will never be done – it will continue to evolve and it will be shaped by those who utilize it in differing ways.
An original rough draft prototype came to fruition in 2007 – it involved sensory apparatus underneath the seat and when the seat-tilted the chair moved. Therefore, when a person shifted their weight forward in the seat the seat would tilt and then the chair would move forward. The person essentially acted as a joystick in the seat. This early prototype did not incorporate other goals for the design, but it did create a first step towards making the individual potentially “hands-free” in the chair. Initially, I worked with students and faculty in the College of Engineering to build this early chair prototype. Later, in future developments for the chair I worked with companies in Florida and California to bring the full design to fruition.
Due to my development of the chair project within the University, the Office of Patents and Licensing at USF was a very helpful resource with whom I worked closely as the chair technology has developed. An initial patent filing occurred soon after the first prototype was developed and forthcoming patents have been filed in a similarly timely fashion.
Currently I have two patents (with my collaborators) – one design patent (US D 642,962), one utility patent (US 7,748490) and I have two more pending regarding the current chair. As I mentioned below, it was primarily due to the Office of Patents and Licensing at USF and their function at the University that I came to understand issues of intellectual property protection and the function of patents in that regard.
2012 marked the time when significant progress was made for the chair project. I worked with companies in California and Florida to develop the chair with my design goals and specifications. It has resulted in the current existing chair prototype which was recently featured at the Smithsonian’s Innovation Festival. This chair embodies the hands-free/mobile wireless control with omnidirectional wheels, and many other features to expand movement potential. It is the first prototype to embody the majority of design goals. I was able to get to this point with the chair project due to USF internal grants, an external award (Thatcher Hoffman Smith Award) and a few small donations.
There are currently two companies interested in the chair and I am in negotiations with these companies regarding their interests and support to move the chair to being a viable commercialized product.
I have applied for a grant to make improvements to the existing chair and make it as user-friendly, safe, and robust a product as possible. I also have an account set up for individuals or organizations to donate to – I continue to look for ways to fundraise towards the chair’s important development. Individuals and organizations in dance, health, recreation, and adaptive sports have contacted me with interests in use of the chair.
Morris has plans to continue refining the prototype chair to increase its ease of transportability, fluid responsiveness, smooth transport, and customizability. The plan is to continue experimenting with different motor drives, refining programmatic options, considering lighter weight materials, adding independent wheel suspension, and addressing user-interface differences.
If you know of anyone interested in donating directly to the chair project, please send them to this link: http://usf.edu/ua/FUND?fund=230025.