Unique wheelchair holds promise for veterans, but lacks support

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by JOHN McCAA

WFAA

Posted on February 15, 2013 at 6:44 PM

FRISCO, Texas -- If you’ve been looking to involve yourself in a good cause, we’ve come across one that involves new technology, American jobs, and helping veterans.

It sounds like a no-brainer, until you see the fine print.

A few years ago, inventor Dean Kamen, creator of the Segway transporter and countless other devices, came up with a unique wheeled chair called an iBOT.

It’s not your typical wheelchair; this one rolls on four wheels, or balances on two, and goes over curbs and up stairs.

For Eddie Beesley, who lost his legs above the knee in Vietnam, it was a life-changer.

KVUE sister station WFAA caught up to him talking to other Marines in Frisco, singing its praises.

“With the iBOT, I can go to the balance mode, and I can be just as tall as the rest of the crowd," he told us.

“Balance mode,” as he calls it, raises the iBOT up from four wheels to two, side-by-side, and returns Eddie to his original six-feet-tall height.

It uses six gyroscopes to keep its balance, compensating for even the slightest unconscious movement on Eddie's part.

For a combat veteran like Eddie, that’s a key feature.

“We (combat veterans) have problems with crowds," he said. "In a standard wheelchair, I'm sitting low, and if I'm in a large crowd, people are all around me standing up. I'm not able to see and [...] that causes a lot of anxiety.”

It’s not just veterans who like the iBOT.

A car accident put civilian Jim Leonard in an iBOT, but the device has never slowed him down.

“The other chairs that I dealt with just limit you so much," Leonard said. "It doesn't make you feel like you are a part of the world again."

The America's Huey 091 Foundation has worked for years to maximize the mobility of disabled veterans. They had a goal: help provide an iBOT for every veteran returning from Iraq and Afghanistan or any past conflict, who needed it.

“The greatest value is equality,” co-Founder Gary Lawson told us. “The greatest value is not being stuck looking at someone's belt buckle -- not looking up constantly to someone.”

However, they’ve run into some problems. The manufacturing line for iBOTs has been shut down.

There are multiple reasons: Put simply, too much government red tape in getting the device approved for use, a lot of doctors preferred the traditional wheelchair for their patients - believing they would provide more exercise - and the $25,000-plus cost.

To make matters worse, Lawson told us, “Most of the less 100 iBOTs made have a built-in clock that will shut down their balance and stair climbing mode at the end of this year.”

That means, come this time next year, Eddie Beesley will, for all intents and purposes, lose his legs a second time.

He loves to dance with his wife, and walk down the street hand-in-hand at the same level... All that will be gone.

The chair will roll backward and forward like any other wheelchair, just not to do things that make the iBOT special.

So now, they’re racing the clock. With creator Dean Kamen’s blessing, the foundation is pushing a new plan.

“We think that with the help of American citizens, we can start up a manufacturing program and a support program built around veterans,” Lawson said.

That's jobs for veterans, building and servicing iBOTs. It’s an interesting plan, but to succeed, Gary Lawson explained two things are needed: a manufacturer, and a little public coaxing to, “get out of the way."

"Let this happen. Make this happen," Lawson said. "The Veterans Administration has lots and lots of young men and women who need this technology. They could place an order, and by placing an order for a thousand iBOTs, we could start manufacturing them in six months.”

It's ambitious, but to Lawson, it makes more sense than shelving technology that could help so many. He believes he needs to make it work are a good men and women.

If you’d like to get involved, click here to write an e-mail to the America’s Huey 091 Foundation, or see their contact page here.

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