Product Spotlight: GRIT Freedom Chair

If wheelchairs have opened doors for people with disabilities, the new Freedom Chair rips it off the hinges. But its ingenuity is not in a souped-up, mother-boarded, turbo-powered engine; it is in the simple, clean mechanical design that allows people with disabilities to get off the beaten path. This design that has made the difference to so many around the world is now making its way back home to the States.

Freedom Chair

"People in wheelchairs want to get off the road. They want to be away from the sidewalk," said Rebecca Adams, supervisor of adaptive equipment at Tewksbury Hospital in Massachusetts. "It's not very fun going outside and you creep up and all you see is that edge. But you can't go past it because your chair is going to get stuck."

With its ability to traverse trails, grass, fields, sands and other environmental challenges, Freedom Chair expands the roaming options for people with disabilities. Though not technically a wheelchair (currently they do not have FDA clearance as a medical device), Freedom Chair is part recreational device, part mountain bike, and all about "getting people off-road and on with their lives."

Freedom Chair Origin Story: From Cambridge to Kenya 

It all started back in college when four exceptional mechanical engineers—Tish Scolnik, Mario Bollini, Ben Judge and Amos Winter—met in the MIT Mobility Lab. Determined to improve lives through technology, they created the rugged, off-road Leveraged Freedom Chair (LFC) for use in developing countries where paved roads were few and far between. Their invention met with accolades, awards and financial backing. After graduation, the foursome launched the Global Research Innovation & Technology (GRIT) and brought their chairs to the villages of such countries as Guatemala, Haiti, India, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Vietnam.

Freedom Chair

For Ashok of Jaipur, India, the LFC was life-changing. After a tragic fall from a tree injured his spinal cord, he was issued a standard hospital-style wheelchair. The problem was that there was no way he could propel that chair over the terrain between his home and his shop in the village. Once the LFC entered the picture, Ashok was able roll into town, re-open his business and go back to supporting his family.

Bringing the Freedom Chair Home to America

Overseas success provided the impetus GRIT need to bring the product home to America. In line with their company vision of engaged stakeholders and human-centered design, they consulted hundreds of U.S. wheelchair users over several years to determine what improvements were necessary to make the LFC viable in American markets. The changes—such as easy stowing of the chair in a car's trunk and the use of standard bicycle parts for convenient repairs and part replacement—were incorporated, the product was rebranded as Freedom Chair and now GRIT is only about six months from U.S. distribution.

Grit Freedom Chair

"It's faster and more mobile, definitely," said Stephen Pento, a wheelchair user who tested one of the U.S. prototypes. "As far as getting out and having a good time off-roading, this is much better.

To facilitate their homecoming, GRIT has launched a very successful Kickstarter campaign which includes pre-orders to be manufactured in the United State and fulfilled as early as May 2015. In their efforts to fund their first production run, they have surpassed initial goals and are working towards the stretch goals of offering color and a beach kit.

How the Freedom Chair Works

Lever Drive with Geared Drive Train

Two levers extend up which the driver moves back and forth—simultaneously or individually—to trigger propulsion. Essentially, users "shift gears" depending on where they place their hands on the levers. The rougher the ground or steeper the incline, the higher up on the lever you grasp (low gear). This allows you to power over obstacles with 50% more torque than pushrims. If the ground is smoother and you're in a hurry, manipulating the levers near the base equals an approximate 75 increase in speed (high gear). Both levers can be easily removed and stored on the chair if the rider prefers to use it as a traditional wheelchair.



Sustainable with Standard Bike Parts and Strong Design

No waiting for days or weeks to get a new part for your chair. Refreshingly, none of the parts—tires, gearing, fasteners, interfaces—are proprietary and you can roll into any bike shop to find what you need. The frame is steel for strength and durability, while the design incorporates three wheels for stability. The large knobby tires are ideal for rugged landscapes and hindrances that would trap standard casters are no match for durable, solid-rubber front wheel.

Freedom Chair

Transportable

Fully collapsible, the Freedom Chair comes apart sans tools to conveniently fit in the trunk of a small sedan and still leaves room for the rest of your hiking gear.

"Allowing people to get off the beaten path even if it's as simple as rolling on the grass allows a quality of life that we take for granted," said Bollini, co-founder and CTO. "With your support, we'll get people of all abilities moving beyond the pavement," echoed Scholnik, co-founder and CEO.

For more information on the GRIT Freedom Chair, visit www.gogrit.org.

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