Technology gives wheelchair-bound fliers a lift | RecordCourier.com

Technology gives wheelchair-bound fliers a lift

by Aurora Sain
asain@recordcourier.com

Getting in and out of an aircraft can be a difficult and embarrassing situation for people in wheelchairs, but a Minden company is looking at ways to change that.

Beneficial Designs is a flight test lab, one of only two in the country, based out of a hangar at the Minden-Tahoe Airport.

They are currently testing transfer technologies that would assist nonambulatory passengers to get on and off of aircraft.

Airports currently use a narrow boarding wheelchair that has to be pushed by service providers, who then generally have to lift the passenger into the seat, which can be both painful for the service providers and the passenger, as well as embarrassing.

"We wanted to come up with a more humane way of getting wheelchair passengers into the seat," said Peter Axelson, director of research and development for Beneficial Designs.

Axelson is paralyzed from the waist down and has the strength and function to both propel and transfer to and from a manual wheelchair independently.

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Most powered wheelchair users don't have the strength and mobility to independently transfer from their chair to an airline seat.

Axelson is in a wheelchair as a result of a spinal cord injury that occurred while he was a cadet at the United States Air Force Academy when he was 19-years-old.

He went on to obtain degrees in mechanical engineering and product design at Stanford University.

Axelson is studying two separate technologies that would assist in the process of getting into an airline seat.

One of the prototypes would attach to the overhead storage shelf and create a support strap for passengers with arm and hand function.

The other uses a structural rail that would span from one storage shelf to the other and a trolley would slide on the rail and act as a lift system.

"We want to make it easier for disabled passengers to fly,' said Axelson.

Axelson has also helped with designing accessibility for wheelchair users at theme parks, ski equipment, the National Parks and various outdoor recreation activities.

He is also a pilot, and uses hand controls to fly across the country to various meetings.

"I have a lot of experience in knowing exactly what the problems are," said Axelson.

The aisle space in airplanes also poses a difficulty for wheelchair users, since they require multiple people to help get them into the seats.

"It is very difficult to get in and out of aircraft," said Axelson.

Getting from the jet way and onto the plane also poses a problem because the current boarding chair isn't good at going down the steep slope.

It is estimated that more than 10 percent of wheelchair users have fallen out of the boarding chair, said Axelson.

"That's when it dawned on me," said Axelson. "This is an incredible problem."

The equipment for the airlines would be portable, and able to be moved and put on a seat as needed.

They are also working on making flying more comfortable by ensuring wheelchair users have something to rest their feet on so they don't hang and seats and back rests that would help prevent against pressure sores.

Ted Nagel of Rolling Thunder Entertainment and Marketing is helping with the study.

Nagel, who is a powered wheelchair user, is showing how the lift would work and helping to give input relevant to powered wheelchair users.

"He has really helped us figure out what works," said Axelson.

Nagel, who has been dropped twice while trying to board an airplane, said that he has no desire to travel and experience that again.

Having a safer mechanism to get on the aircraft would be beneficial, and could prevent people like Nagel from getting hurt from being dropped.

"It would be awesome to have a lift like this," said Nagel, who is already looking at more ways he can help with studies that would benefit wheelchair users.

Beneficial Designs is also looking for more participants over the age of 18 who are either a powered or manual wheelchair user.

According to Axelson, participants in the study will have the satisfaction of knowing that they are contributing to the development of safer technologies for getting on and off of aircraft.

As part of the testing and evaluation, participants will get to see their pressure readings on their personal wheelchair cushion.

Financial compensation is provided to cover time and travel expenses as an incentive to participate and Axelson said they could also pick up participants if they needed a ride to the study.

The project testing and evaluation is being completed in collaboration with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

Funding for the project is being provided by the Paralyzed Veterans of America's Research Foundation, a private not for profit foundation supported by private donations.

Minden Air Corp. provided the used aircraft seats to perform the testing.

To participate call Axelson at 790-1210 or email peter@beneficialdesigns.com.