Local Invention Gives Disabled Greater Access

Singapore, 31 May 2006 –

  • Wearnes Centennial-SPD Fund yields first invention – the Wheelchair Gap Enabler, brainchild of NTU Professor
  • NTU effective innovation and dynamic R&D expertise results in innovative invention to benefit society
  • SPD launches nationwide competition to further enhance the wheelchair technology to help users overcome environmental barriers

Early last year, wheelchair user Jan Lee had to turn down two job offers. Then 23 years old with an Accountancy diploma, Mr Lee, who has transverse myelitis (an inflammation of the spinal cord), could only travel on a specially equipped van, or a London cab or MaxiCab. He would have to spend $50 a day on transport to get to his job, taking up a large part of his salary.

The development of the Wheelchair Gap Enabler is set to change the outlook for Jan and other wheelchair users.

It was invented by Assistant Professor John Heng from Nanyang Technological University (NTU)’s School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. The modular device can be installed onto a standard wheelchair to cross gaps. This will enable Mr Lee to board wheelchair accessible low-floor buses from a bus stop. The first version demonstration prototype was unveiled at an official ceremony graced by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister of Community Development, Youth and Sports and Second Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, on 31 May 2006.

The idea for a modular device that could help wheelchair users to overcome environmental barriers was first mooted by SPD following the government’s call for a barrier free Singapore.

This project follows from an MOU signed between SPD and NTU in June 2005, committing to jointly pursue and promote research and development in Assistive Technology (AT).

It is supported by the Wearnes Centennial-SPD Fund, initiated by WBL Corporation Limited (“Wearnes”) in celebration of its 100th year. The funds will go towards purchasing AT devices for training and assessment, engaging in research and development of AT, allowing clients to access and loan AT devices for trial use, and subsidising the IT training costs of disabled people. Three months since fundraising began, about $300,000 has been raised with donations from Wearnes’ staff, business partners and associates.

“We hope to help those with physical disabilities overcome challenges and maximise their potential through the application of technology. We are very excited about the potential of Assistive Technology and how it can help the disabled. Wearnes is happy to give our support and make a difference to the lives of the physically disabled,” said Mr Tan Choon Seng, Group CEO of Wearnes.

This event also kicks off the first Wheelchair Enabler Invention Competition organised by SPD. It hopes more Singaporeans will participate and offer their ideas for the invention of the Wheelchair Enabler.

Wheelchair Enablers are modular devices that can be easily installed onto standard wheelchairs to allow users to overcome barriers in the environment. Essential features of Wheelchair Enablers include enabling wheelchair users to clear gaps, climb kerbs and propel over uneven surfaces with minimal effort.

Interested participants are invited to submit their applications and proposals by 31 July 2006. A panel of judges comprising a researcher, policy maker, therapist, technology corporation and wheelchair user will assess the entries based on their originality and innovativeness, safety of the device, practicality and usability, and cost efficiency. The results will be announced at the Finals in early 2007 where the designs will be exhibited.

This is part of SPD’s plan to drive a national effort to build and design Wheelchair Enablers. It hopes the initiative will lead to commercially-viable products in the near future that are affordable and easily available to the public.

Current devices available in the market cost between $200 and $50,000, and cannot be easily adapted onto standard wheelchairs commonly used in Singapore. Most have to be imported from countries at high costs which make this an unsuitable option for many wheelchair users.

SPD believes that Wheelchair Enablers will become more useful in time, given that by 2030, 20 percent of the population will be 65 years old and above.

“The Wheelchair Enabler Development Programme is very timely and complements the current move towards a more accessible and barrier free Singapore. Our efforts in developing the Wheelchair Enabler are in no way attempts to replace or slow down this process. We hope that we can help to even hasten the process of making Singapore more accessible to wheelchair users in general,” said Mr See Cher, President, Society for the Physically Disabled.

“The invention of the Wheelchair Gap Enabler is a result of effective innovation and dynamic R&D expertise which the NTU environment excels in. By applying our knowledge and extensive experience, researchers at NTU are able to bring benefit to society and develop solutions that meet real world needs. We look forward to more opportunities where NTU research and expertise can help to benefit the public and society,” said Assistant Professor John Heng, NTU.

“The Wheelchair Enabler will make it easier and even encourage more wheelchair users to step out and join in mainstream activities. In the long run, it might even help to change the way others look at disabled people,” said Mr Raja Singh, wheelchair athlete and one of two partners of DNR Wheels Pte Ltd, a small company that sells customised wheelchairs and mobility aids for disabled people.