On our extensive travel prep lists, one of the two most challenging and important tasks was to acquire a travel wheelchair for Sparky that can go hiking, sit in restaurants, fold small, with a removable seat that can go in cars and planes and on the back of elephants. It needs to be waterproof, unbreakable, reparable from easily available materials, attractive (except to thieves) and cheap.
After two years of reading travel blogs and forums we found no precedent. How do people do it? Surely someone had figured this one out.
This post is the story of what we did. Everyone’s needs are different, but we hope the following is useful to someone!
Firstly, we looked at commercially available wheelchairs (wheeled bases and inner seats)
Here is a great chair for off-roading.
We like the wheelbarrow tow along idea, and the comfort provided by the large tyre.
No motorised wheelchair would be useful, as they weigh too much, but this cool chair can stand up and climb stairs.
There are a lot of cool chairs that can do one cool thing; raise the user to standing height, climb stairs, allow for wriggle room and back stretching, fold small or whatever, but we wanted one that would do lots of things. If Sparky already used a motorised chair which gave her independent mobility, we would have to think hard about denying her that freedom in order to travel with a manual chair. But that has not been an issue for us.
We also checked out a couple of “disability” specific three wheeler pusher chair / adventure buggy type things. Here’s is the wheeled base, and the inner seat for one option.
Total price $8000!! A non-disability chair that is almost the same would be maybe $400. Herein lies one of the most annoying issues Australian families face. Many products in Australia are from overseas, and there is only one supplier. Products cost four times the cost in the USA or the UK, where many of them come from. For example, we once bought a chair online from the USA for $412. In Australia it was only available in one shop and cost $2119. People with disabilities in Australia and their families are crying out for a fairer market with more competition for basic products like wheelchairs and communication devices.
Needless to say we did not consider paying the $8000 for this model. It was also clumsy and too big, over-engineered even. In hindsight, it would not have fitted in a lot of elevators we’ve used.
So we decided it was time to do it ourselves.
This was our initial drawing.
The wheeled base would have comfort-giving suspension arising from the large pneumatic tyre. And from the elastic strap suspending the inner seat. The seat would be detachable and able to be sat in a variety of locations. The wheeled base would be able to fold up and fit into the rear boot of a taxi or the storage compartment under buses.
The chair needed to be able to go up stairs easily, be stable, with a good breaking system. It needed to be able to handle the average jungle/bush walk, but more importantly all the dodgy, dippy, slippery Asian footpaths and massive curbs. We wanted it to be easy to push for Tintin and Meena, as well as ourselves.
Here’s the chair we took on our 9 months caravanning adventure around Australia
It was heavy and unstable. We spend 6 hrs in emergency in Canberra when the chair tipped over on the roof of parliament house and Sparky hit her head on the concrete. Woops.
We also wanted a chair that looks cool. Its never going to be inconspicuous, so cool is the next best thing. We didn’t want it to look expensive, however, and planned to always chain it up if ever if the chair is unattended.
So, how to do it?
We made an appointment to talk with dream fit, the brainchild of a young engineer; who has a brother with a disability. These guys are amazing. They made boats, seats, canoes, surfboards and all sort of sports equipment to make adventure activities possible for people with disabilities. They also offer internship places for engineering students. How fantastic for young students to step out of the corporate world and apply their problems solving skills to making equipment that facilitates accessibility. Unfortunate for us, all projects had been allocated for the semester. However, we had an inspiring visit to their workshop. We like dreamfit because of its great problem-solving approach, and the fact that the guys had great ideas first, made them work in their own back shed and got funding and accreditation second.
We also explored options for the inner seat to be used separately. Could it have straps and a waist band attached and work as a child carrying back pack?
A service provider we have used in the past also offered to make the seat for us. This very quickly went belly up. As the staff consistently failed to grasp that they were helping us with a few minor things we lacked the tools for. They kept thinking they were in charge and were supposed to be telling us what to do. And suddenly there were all sorts of rules we had to comply with. The seat they finally came up with weighed more that the one we made ourselves. Numerous visits to the workshop were a total waste of time. The whole experience confirmed what we already knew. Just do it ourselves. Save stress, time and money.
Here is the seat we ended up with. It is in fact an old seat base made of stainless steel. We really wanted a lighter weight framework but found nothing strong enough to bear the enormous force Sparky puts on her chair when she arches her back. We’d still like to try a reinforced fiberglass option … next time maybe. The seat weighed 5.5 kg. This was 3 kg heavier that our goal. My brother drilled bits out of the seat for us, which lightened it a bit.
We minimized the foam back and base as much as we could without compromising Sparky’s comfort. Here is the foam base, it has high density foam, and a layer of memory foam on top, cut to size with an electric bread knife. Our plan is that she shouldn’t sit for longer that 2 hours without a position change or hopping out for a wriggle, but sometimes longer stints will be unavoidable. We bought a second hand harness and headrest bracket for $200. We used the head rest from Sparky’s old heavy wheelchair. We got a new neck support collar made based on our old homemade one, which had come to the end of its long and effective life.
We took the heavy duty click strap off Sparky’s shower chair to use as a universal attachment strap to secure her chair in taxis and on buses and trains.
None of this stuff meets Australian Standards. The chair is not transport approved, and the straps are not either. The seat is not an approved car seat restraint. It’s a good thing we’re not traveling in Australia!! We believe we’ve made the safest possible option for what we are planning to do, in countries where there are no rules about wheelchair transport or child car seat safety. We saw hundreds of children in highly unsafe positions, sitting on the dashboard on a car, perched in a cane high chair atop a scooter, standing on the tray of trucks or hanging off the back of songtheows. We’re not letting this lower our standards of safety, however. If we felt Sparky was unsafe, we would find a different transport method, so far we’ve been happy with the transport safety for her and her equipment. In fact, she’s always belted on, and therefore safer than the rest of us.
We toyed around with building our own wheeled base. I found a few wheels off street verges, and asked around our welding capable friends. At the same time we explored commercially available products. Chris and Sparky visited our local bike shop and found the Chariot; a Canadian product. These chairs are amazing. They come in single or double. And have a whole lot of attachments including a hiking kit, three wheel and four wheel options, a bike towing kit and even skis (maybe one day)!! The great features of the Chariot are it has really good suspension, low centre of gravity, looks extremely cool, has removable wheels, and is light and collapsible. What a great chair! We paid about $1200 for the Chariot Cabriolet, and got the hiking kit, travel bag, and small storage bag options with it.
Putting seat and Chariot together
The chariot comes with a large bag for airplane transport. If you fold it just the right way, it functions as a platform for the seat to sit on. We then secure it with the click strap.
And so, there we have it.
In our next Travel Wheelchair post we’ll tell you how it works, the shortfalls, and we’ll include very cool footage of the chair in action . Most importantly, we’ll interview Sparky about what its like to travel SE Asia in a wheelchair.
Would you believe it, after all this we found another family who built a travel wheelchair for their daughter who has Cerebral Palsy. Their solution is very different from ours, but very cool. Have a look here! ( its all in French, but the video is cool)
So, what’s the verdict? Is it a good solution? Chris is keen to build an improved and lighter seat on our return. Any ideas?