NSU professor develops new mobility wheelchair

Sandra Winkler, Ph.D., assistant professor of occupational therapy in the college of Health Care Sciences is more than just a professor.

She is an inventor.

Her invention is a wheelchair that is intended to give individuals with severe motor disability the ability to drive an electric power wheelchair. The invention is titled “Force-Sensing Orthotic Electric Device Controller.”

Winkler has been working on this idea since she began practicing as an occupational therapist in Sante Fe, New Mexico in 1994.

Two patients with athetoid dystonia cerebral palsy were referred to Dr. Winkler for feeding problems. The term, athetoid dystonia refers to abnormal tone, posture or movement in various muscles of the body due to damage in the basal ganglia, which is responsible for the control and fine regulation of coordinated muscular movement.

Winkler first task was to secure a seating/mobility system that would help them to swallow safely. The second task was to enable her patients independent driving of their wheelchairs, so that they could perform  activities such as exploration of their environment and interaction with peers at school.

Working with her patients, Winkler noticed that many individuals with athetoid dystonia had better lower extremity control and tended to use their feet/toes to operate and even program their augmentative and alternative communication devices (ACC) which are used to enhance their communication. Thus, patients could not use the existing wheelchair joystick or the power wheelchair interfaces that require either upper extremity or head control to operate.

Based on her observations, Winkler hypothesized that the only way the patients would be able to drive a power wheelchair independently would be to remove the controller from the wheelchair and make it wearable.

Winkler created the first prototype as a joystick that could be embedded in an ankle-foot orthotic brace that could be manipulated by the grasp capabilities of the toes. Her first complete prototype was designed, constructed, and tested in 2008 by undergraduate engineering students at the University of Vermont.

“We want to give children with severe disability, independent mobility. These are kids who have never been able to move before, without somebody moving them” Winkler says.

Jackie Reese, Ph.D., assistant professor of occupational therapy believes that technology is the future of functionality in wheelchair design. “Helping those who are disabled to gain some sort of independence is the ultimate goal of our work”.

The possibilities of this invention for those in wheelchairs could be life changing, said Winkler.

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