Faced with disability-related problems, these three wheelers created solutions
“If I am experiencing this issue, then so are other wheelchair users.” It’s a simple thought that crosses all of our minds at some point, and it’s also the root of many great innovations that have made the world more accessible.
For Adrian Hollis, that thought struck when his feet kept getting stuck in his wheelchair’s casters. For Jason Derrington, it hit during a near catastrophe in an airport bathroom. The frustration caused by his phone frequently falling to the ground did it for Josh Smith.
In each case, these three regular guys devised functional solutions that not only fixed their problem, but promised to help others in similar situations. But bringing a product to the masses isn’t as easy as simply thinking it up and willing it into existence. It’s a process that can be frustrating, laborious and often disappointing. Here are the stories of how they persevered to bring us the BIGPAW, the Easy Reach and Attracmount.
In 2005, Adrian Hollis was working as a foreman for a power-line construction company in Melbourne, Australia, and kept his creative side busy with a home workshop he used to make furniture as a hobby. A motorcycle accident left him with a T4 spinal cord injury and a wheelchair, giving him a new reason to use his workshop.
“With my first chair out of rehab, my feet were all over the place and getting caught up in the casters, so I made a basic metal plate with rolled sides and stuck on some grip tape, and it helped solve the problem,” says Hollis. The invention even allowed him to go barefoot when he wanted. The curved-up metal sides kept his feet from shifting sideways into his front wheels and a strap around his ankles stopped them from falling off the front or the back. Hollis was happy with his handiwork, but for over a decade he didn’t think to expand the scope of his project beyond a personal solution.
A pressure sore in 2017 changed all that. Hollis spent almost four and a half months in bed, using what time he could while healing to try out a new wheelchair to help his skin integrity. Still, one thing was off — the standard footrest gave him the same problems his first chair’s did, and his feet kept slipping off, hitting the wheels. “So with all my available time, I set to work to make something for myself,” he says.
This time, he went beyond his own wheels, creating a template for a custom footplate to benefit other wheelchair users and present a business opportunity in the process.
With an actual company in mind, Hollis pursued patents and partnered with a manufacturer to create the innovative footplates for chair users who need them. He also gave the product a name — the BIGPAW. After a little nagging, some buddies tried out prototypes. “My first trial plates went to mates who put it on to shut me up, then they realized the benefit of having it fitted,” he says. He decided the BIGPAW would be custom cut using measurements from a printable online template. The finished product can be mounted to pretty much any wheelchair using heavy-duty two-sided tape or a set of bolts. Soon enough, he was getting rave reviews. Within the first year, Hollis sold more than 100 units in Australia, New Zealand and the United States, and he has more on the way.
Handizap and Attracmount
Once Josh Smith tasted success with his first invention, the Sixth Digit, there was little doubt he’d be back with more.
A Richmond, Virginia, resident, Smith graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from Virginia Tech, worked as a nuclear engineer at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, and then in March 2014 took a job at Old Dominion Insulation, where he still works. Five months later he dove into a sandbar and fractured his sixth cervical vertebrae.
During rehab at Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, he decided that using his knuckles and a plastic typing clip to work his phone and computer were not good enough. The engineer in him immediately woke up, and while still in rehab he designed a specialized stylus for quads: a ring that hooks around the pinky finger with an attached metal tip that can be used on cell phones and touch-screens. He named it the Sixth Digit and created a design and sales company called Handizap. “Handizap is how I flex the engineering part of my brain and solve the problems that people encounter in their daily lives,” he says.
After he got home from rehab, he raised $10,000 via a Kickstarter campaign and found a manufacturer. The whole process took under a year — design started in October 2014, crowdfunding in April 2015, and he and his business partner, Jared Rhodes, secured their first shipment of the Sixth Digit by June. “Since then, we’ve sold thousands in different countries and 40-plus states,” he says. He even secured a distributor in the United Kingdom for the European market.
Smith designed his next invention to keep his cell phone from falling off his lap while he rolled around. His solution, the Attracmount, features a strong magnet that straps around any tube on a wheelchair and a cell phone case with a similar magnet on the back. The creative design keeps a phone or key ring securely in place, but still provides enough flexibility for a quad to grab them easily. The Attracmount isn’t just for wheelchairs. “It’s versatile,” Smith says. “It can be used for strollers or bikes or anything else metal that you’d mount your phone on.”
Smith and Rhodes began another Kickstarter campaign for the Attracmount and expect to receive the first shipment any day now. Smith sees a bright future for his inventions. “Big picture, it would be great to balloon Handizap up and have more products,” he says.
He has made it this far while maintaining his day job as a purchasing manager for Old Dominion Insulation and is happy to advise potential fellow inventors. He urges others to branch out and ask people outside their circle if they have a product idea. “Figure out what the consumer is currently using and find out how to make it better,” he suggests. As for his own work, it’s all about the impact. “As long as I can make a positive difference in people’s lives, that’s what matters.”
Several years ago, Jason Derrington, a T10 para, found himself stuck in an airport bathroom in a crappy situation. He transferred from his wheelchair to the toilet, but when he finished doing his business, he was unable to wipe while sitting on the standard toilet seat. He had to transfer to the floor to clean himself up. The experience was demeaning, unsanitary and took so much time he was anxious that he’d miss his flight. But more importantly, it gave him an idea to prevent similar situations from happening to others: a raised toilet seat designed specifically for wheelchair users and people who need caregivers.
Derrington built a platform that bolts onto any existing oval toilet and places the seat 4 inches higher up. Two large open areas on the sides make it easier for people with disabilities or their caregivers to reach under the seat and wipe. The front pillar also serves as a splash guard to keep floors and clothing clean. It is designed to be used anywhere — at home, in medical facilities, nursing homes or the bathrooms of public areas such as malls or airports.
Going from concept to product required partners and patience, but eventually paid off. Derrington was living in Indiana when he came up with the idea and partnered with the University of Southern Indiana to do the full design and testing using advanced computer models. The university staff refined an injection-molded design that computers showed could hold 600 pounds ( lab tests held a full 750 pounds of weight without breaking, and the product has been officially rated for 450 pounds). Derrington spent “a lot of time and energy” to secure the patent and was able to procure a first run of 144 units after contracting with a manufacturer overseas. He dubbed his creation the Easy Reach and was finally rolling on his business venture.
One year later, Derrington moved to Texas to live with his father and take the next step with the Easy Reach. “My ultimate goal was getting my product to market so that it may help others better their quality of life,” he says. Through savvy marketing and a great attitude, Derrington connected with new distributors interested in selling Easy Reach on television and online. The whole process has helped him better identify his target customers and market his product.
Derrington’s success is the result of a lot of hard work. “As the founder of Easy Reach, I have been responsible for product design, legal consultation, prototyping, stress testing, management, marketing and sales,” he says. He has also kept inventing, improving the existing design, modifying the Easy Reach to fit round toilets and working on a soft top seat for added comfort. With distribution deals wrapping up, he is set to sell hundreds of Easy Reach seats in the coming months.
While many business people are focused on profit, Derrington leans more toward independence: “I want to work myself off Social Security,” he says, “and help put my daughter through college.” Even more, he wants to use his own example to motivate other businesspeople who might be struggling. “This one product has given me tremendous unexpected value — becoming an organic leader by spreading positive influence and becoming a creative inspiration.” His message is clear: keep inventing, keep working, and use your ideas to improve the world around you.
Inventors don’t need to use wheelchairs to create new products for the folks who do. Kurt Schneider, founder and CEO of Solar Mobility, is trying to revolutionize the way we juice our power wheelchairs. A retired Navy vet who worked in the medical corps, he and his wife were running a food stand as a part-time gig in 2007 when they encountered a road-tripping chair user whose battery ran out midday. Luckily, the man was able to find a nearby power source, but Schneider was blown away that there weren’t options besides a wall outlet and charger.
Instead of standing around, Schneider decided to build a fix. His first solution was a solar panel array that sits on top of a wheelchair for rapid charging, the Solar Companion. “It’s a multitude of things,” says Schneider, noting that the canopy design gives users respite from the sun, has both lights and reflectors for visibility and, of course, helps keep batteries charged.
As Schneider was going through the lengthy process of refining, patenting and manufacturing the Solar Companion, he saw an opportunity to do more. His next goal was a solar-equipped wheelchair with additional unique features — especially an improved seating system. Schneider saw the dangers of skin breakdown from his time in the Navy, and realized the extent of the problem as he pushed the solar panels through FDA and insurance approval. His inspiration came from the long-haul trucking industry: His new chair is designed to help maintain skin integrity by adding “air ride suspension” between the seat and the frame to create built-in air circulation. “It was taking from two different industries and making a new product,” says Schneider
The full process from design to approval to sales took nearly eight years and the resulting product is called the Liberator. Testing, securing patents and working to get the Liberator insurance approved was tedious and time consuming. “You must be persistent. If you’re not, you’ll fail,” says Schneider. The chair now has VA insurance approval and Schneider expects it to be available for Medicare and Medicaid recipients soon, and hopefully for private insurance as well.
The final product is manufactured almost exclusively in the United States and features a solar-charging system that also works with low ambient light. Schneider tells of a user who was running low on battery at night and was able to park under a streetlight to get enough charge to ride the extra couple blocks home.
Despite some setbacks and the time from design to sales, Schneider is happy that he took the innovator’s path. He believes the Liberator has the potential to save medical costs by staving off pressure sores, while also changing the way chairs are powered. Most of all, “it’s been a fun project,” he says, and he’s looking forward to the future.