A Consumer's Perspective: Light Weight & Aesthetics

Carbon Fiber BackWhat happens when the consumer who’s unhappy with his wheelchair backrest is also an engineer?

Answer: He gets what he wants by creating what he wants.

THE ORIGINAL MODEL

Todd Hargroder, a wheelchair user for more than 30 years, started Accessible Designs Inc. (ADI) by creating products and components he wanted, but couldn’t find on the market.

Stealth Products acquired ADI two years ago, but Hargroder is still there, now as the senior R&D engineer. And ultralightweight manual wheelchair users like him tend to want two things out of their wheelchair backrests.

“You want it to be very lightweight and minimalist,” Hargroder said, “with less adjustment. There are two rules of thumb, but some chair users want the bare minimum: the lightest and cleanest. That’s what I started out designing.”

Of the back he originally used on his own chair, Hargroder said, “There wasn’t much to choose from. The support was fine, but the weight of the back and the mounting hardware — I was just unhappy with it. So I started messing around with carbon fiber. A friend of mine was using carbon fiber for the shell of his racecar, and that was my first exposure to it. I thought, I have to figure out something to do with this, because it’s just cool material.”

Hargroder was drawn to carbon fiber’s low weight and sleek good looks.

“It weighs next to nothing, so I made a shell out of carbon fiber, and the next step was making mounting hardware,” He said.

“When I first started designing backs, all backrests had a lot of adjustment, which is what some people need. But I wanted to keep things minimal, so I designed fixed mounting hardware, no adjustment. There’s angle adjustment in a backrest of a wheelchair, so my thought was, why be redundant?”

LEARNING TO ADJUST

His first backrest offerings accomplished what Hargroder set out to do: “With a minimalist design, you’re going to have a lighter back, less moving parts, less things to lose or fall off — just keeping it clean and light.”

In time, he learned that some consumers had other needs.

“I set out to create a minimalist backrest that suited my needs, yet as I sold more backs and visited more clinicians, I understood that they needed more adjustment,” he said. “They needed to be able to fine-tune the backrests, particularly for early-on users, in their first and second years [post injury]. You’re just getting used to your life in a chair, and your body changes, your seating position changes, so you do need adjustment throughout that time.”

Those carbon fiber backs are also available in different shapes and heights. “A lot of that is level of injury,” Hargroder explained about the range of difference. Your paraplegics, folks with more trunk control, can use a lower back. I think a lot of people use too low a back. They want that minimalist look, that cool look. But you see some people running a really low, 10" back, and I like a little bit taller back so I can really lean into it and properly support my trunk. It’s personal preference as well as level of injury.”

Hargroder admitted it’s not always easy to convince new, young users to think too far into the future, but even a long-time “dialed-in” user will notice changes as time goes on — and will perhaps see the benefit of tweaking how they sit in their chairs.

“People’s bodies change over those years, and chairs will change as well,” he said. “That’s the great thing about our industry, with so many product offerings. That’s why you need to be reassessed every couple of years. That’s why chairs should be reissued every three to four, to certainly five years. Our bodies change. You can’t wear the same pair of shoes every single day for five years. They’re going to wear to your asymmetries. A chair is the same way.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Mobility Management.

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