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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Assistive and rehabilitation design class at UW-Madison helps those with disabilities enjoy cross-country skiing

It was only several years ago the “sit-ski” technology developed by University of Wisconsin-Madison engineering professor Jay Martin and his assistive and rehabilitation technology design class was created, but the impact since the start of the project has been huge.

As a result of the work done by Martin, the efforts of his class, the initiative taken by disability rights lawyer Don Becker and the community’s involvement, sit-skis are now available nationwide for those who need them. This allows for paraplegic, and even some quadriplegic, individuals to participate in cross-country skiing at little cost, something that was financially impossible before this project was initiated.

The sit-ski is a constructed around a lightweight metal framework, and resembles a streamlined bobsled with a chair where the cargo would normally be. The two skis attach to the bottom of the frame and a variety of straps and buckles keep the individual securely attached

According to Martin, the students’ involvement in the development of the sit-ski was invaluable. While only undergraduate students, they achieved real-world results through this project and changed many people’s capacity for winter recreation.

The students were all a part of ART—an assistive and rehabilitation technology class offered at the UW-Madison. Martin calls his class “a really invaluable opportunity for learning.”

He focuses on the step-by-step problem-solving process with his class, and stresses the importance of getting results. “If they want to create freely… they can do that with other instructors… this class is not that. We are going to use a very structured process,” Martin said.

Community involvement for the sit-ski project was essential during the building phase, when workshop space and materials were crucial. H & H Industries and Isthmus Engineering both contributed workshop time and materials to the process and were instrumental in the creation of more than 200 of the sit-skis.

Martin stressed the importance of the community coming together with the students, stating this was “a unique way of manufacturing” and that the group effort was wholly positive. Every Saturday during the process the volunteers and students would gather to work on the production of the skis. Martin called it a “cult” in the most positive sense of the word, as every individual involved was completely committed to making this project a reality.

The workshop where the sit-ski was developed and brought into being is currently packed full of current projects and prototypes of assistive technologies that promise an exciting future for individuals who rely on wheelchairs and power chairs for everyday activities.

One such undertaking is an installation that drastically shortens the length of a ramp that someone in a wheelchair must use to access a building. The mechanics of this are simple, yet efficient. The wheelchair user moves themself into position; with the larger back wheels fitting between two spinning rollers, and with just the power of the individuals body, the platform is raised up a steep incline that would normally be impossible to ascend.

The current prototype slightly resembles a boatlift, but operates on the energy produced by spinning the wheels of a wheelchair rather than a crank system. Because ramps must be proportionately long as they are tall, it would normally take more than 20 feet of ramp length to get someone up three vertical feet. With this installation, a large amount of space and time can be saved.

Included in the menagerie of assistive technology is a rig on a wheelchair that allows for a handicapped individual to push their baby in a stroller. So far the prototype only includes a wooden framework with some swiveling parts, but if the sit-ski is any indication of the results of this classes work, the capability for wheelchair-users to push their baby around in a stroller may exist in the near future.

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Achieving results in this project may make a world of difference to young parents who want to give their children the same experiences as any other. This is just one example of the inventions Martin and his students create that can change the lives of those who are confined to a wheelchair or a power chair.

Martin expressed willingness to do more projects like this in the future. He currently does not have any recreational projects on the agenda, but stated he was very happy to see the way the students and community came together to produce these sorts of results.

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