Friday, November 6, 2015

Go Grit Freedom Chair

This year I've test driven the Freedom Chair, a recently developed off-road manual wheelchair, twice. This stunningly solid, affordable and conveniently designed wheelchair was created by MIT students as a school project and produced in quantity for use in underdeveloped countries. This innovative entrepreneurial student group has since launched a company, called GRIT, to produce the Freedom Chair for sale in the U.S. In their first year they've sold seventy chairs so far.

I first tested the Freedom Chair in early spring, with snow still on the ground, as the Go Grit team was fundraising to produce their first round of chairs. A couple of us in the Universal Access Program were able to test ride it outside our office and discovered that it could travel over grassy terrain and snow patches with ease. We could even work it up over curbs and handle uneven terrain pretty well. Our landscape was limited though and we didn't have a true user, someone who actually uses a manual wheelchair, to give us what I would consider official feedback.

This fall, we met again with Ben Judge from Grit, at Mt. Tom State Reservation in Holyoke. We invited Joannah Whitney to test drive with us. At first Joannah was a bit skeptical of the design, wanting to maximize the arc of endeavor and use her full abdominal strength as she has become used to doing in rowing. She was frustrated by the center pad in back, seeing it as a limitation to how far she could push back with her abdominal muscles. I had just had a spasm in my mid-back that morning and found the back pad to be a nice solid support. We soon found the back pad to be perfectly placed for uphill travel as it prevents you from leaning too far backwards.

Joannah felt the chair has some differences in how it operates compared to a regular wheelchair that require some getting used to - for instance, it doesn't wheel backwards. I found it to be fairly easy to intuit and adapt to the how the chair functions. To deal with not being able to back up, I simply spun the chair around in a circle, effectively changing direction.

Overall, it is a simple design, propelled by two tall levers which can be easily removed as needed. Where you put your hands on the levers determines how much leverage you get with each pull. I found I liked to keep my hands low going uphill and use quick pushes. You do get some glide from each pull whether traveling level or on a downhill, a feature Joannah especially appreciated. One of the most compelling aspects of the Freedom Chair is that it is designed with bicycle parts so that it can be easily repaired in a bike shop or by anyone with bike mechanic skills. It also stows neatly into the back of a car.

We traveled along the wheelchair accessible trail which has some significant grades along the stone dust path. We also traveled over the forest floor and found it to be fairly easy to do on relatively open ground. The Freedom Chair definitely gets you off pavement. Ben said some people are getting onto fairly rugged terrain and even hiking a mile or more - it all depends on your strength and motivation. Joannah informed us that this was the first time she had been able to travel in a natural landscape in several years and would love to be able to use this chair again.

The Freedom Chair sells for $3000, quite a bit less than other all-terrain style manual wheelchairs on the market. It is also made in Massachusetts. We are hoping to see more of these chairs in use in Massachusetts State Parks soon.

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