Reinventing the wheelchair |

Reinventing the wheelchair

Seth Lightcap/Sierra SunHunter Yeider cranks a lap around the Truckee Physical Therapy office Thursday while trying a new wheelchair driving and braking system called a Wijit. The Wijit's lever arm amplifies propulsion while reducing common injuries of wheelchair users.

A grin stretches across Hunter Yeider’s angular face and his eyes brighten with excitement as he twists and turns around a physical therapy center in Truckee on Thursday.

“I want to be a speed racer,” the 11-year-old exclaimed while adjusting to the new wheels.

Hunter was born with Congenital Disorders of Glycosylation, a rare genetic disease causing him to use a wheelchair. Out of a constant desire to improve her son’s mobility and freedom, Faith Yeider accompanied Hunter to a Wijit presentation at Truckee Physical Therapy.

“This looks like something Hunter could benefit from,” Yeider said. “It would only be a matter of funding.”

The Wijit is a breakthrough system for manual wheelchairs that allows users to propel, steer, slow down, turn and stop more efficiently while promoting cardiovascular health and reducing strain, said Brian Watwood, the creator and former North Lake Tahoe resident.

Rather than continuously gripping and releasing the wheels in a forward and backward motion that leads to shoulder pain and injury, the Wijit allows wheelchair users to sit upright, moving a lever in a forward or reverse motion for a more natural propulsion, Watwood said.

In addition, the braking system minimizes hand friction while the lever design amplifies the user’s power and speed, he said.

Watwood ” who previously worked at Alpine Meadows as a ski patrolman ” was diagnosed as an incomplete quadriplegic after being struck by an automobile while riding his bicycle in 1987. Despite waking up in a hospital paralyzed from the neck down, Watwood said several surgeries and years of physical therapy helped him regain his limited ability to walk.

Watwood said the frustrations and struggles he experienced while using a wheelchair fueled his desire to help people with disabilities, and he began designing and improving the lever and gear system, which is compatible with most manual wheelchair models, he said.

After scientific testing was conducted on Watwood’s invention, the Wijit was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1997, and is now reimbursed by most insurance companies such as Medicare, Medicaid and other state and private agencies, Watwood said.

“This is truly a breakthrough technology for manual wheelchair users,” he said.

Watwood said his familiarity with the Tahoe Basin terrain spurred him to make the trek from Granite Bay to Truckee to share his invention with the local disabled community.

“Truckee is a community environment that could be difficult for disabled people to navigate around,” Watwood said. ” They’ve got to have the nerve and confidence to get around the snow and other elements.”

Mark Wellman ” a Truckee resident, mountain climbing legend and paraplegic since 1982 ” attended Thursday’s demonstration and said he is intrigued and excited by what the Wijit has to offer.

“This could be a worldwide product and here they are in Truckee,” Wellman said. “It looks like a great piece of technology and technology has changed the lives of people with disabilities.”

Emily Husted ” a Truckee resident and mother of 10-year-old Ben Sharp who has suffered from cerebral palsy since birth ” said a more functional mode of transportation could improve Sharp’s health, comfort and quality of life.

“A more efficient energy transfer for him would be helpful” Husted said while watching her son maneuver his chair with the new equipment.

“I’m not convinced yet,” she added. “But this has the possibility to give Ben more mobility and freedom.”

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