Today, technology lies at the heart of equipment for adaptive sports, or parasports. As such equipment becomes increasingly diverse and user-friendly, the opportunities for people with reduced mobility to cultivate hobbies and practice both recreational and competitive sports are multiplying, fostering a more inclusive society.
The assistive equipment used in reduced-mobility sports and activities is often only a slightly modified version of standard gear. But at the other end of the spectrum, it can also be highly sophisticated, featuring cutting edge materials and the latest manufacturing techniques. “Technological developments in adaptive sport mean disabled people have started to focus on their capabilities and not on their limitations,” said Samuela Caccaro, export manager of Italian wheelchair manufacturer Offcarr. “This is how it should be.”
Innovation is central in any sport, and wheelchair sports are no different. Those that demand speed and agility, such as basketball, rugby and tennis, are now seeing wheelchair systems that are increasingly lightweight, tough, maneuverable and form-fitting, and which move with minimal effort.
Reinventing the Wheel
The essential components of sports wheelchairs are the wheels, casters, footrest, backrest and seat. This may seem simple, but the permutations are almost endless, with designs customized for each sport and each user. Advances in welding techniques mean chairs are less reliant on screws, making them stronger and lighter.
Most basketball wheelchairs—such as the Wind from Offcarr—now have cambered wheels to reduce the turning radius and increase stability in sharp turns. And wheelchairs for rugby, which need to be strong enough to withstand serious impacts, feature front and rear casters to prevent tipping over backwards, and carbon fiber spokes to increase wheel strength. Offcarr’s new Go Try rugby wheelchair even comes in two versions—one for defense and one for attack—with completely different configurations.
“The Go Try rugby wheelchair even comes in two versions—one for defense and one for attack.”
While wheelchairs made with conventional lightweight materials such as aluminum or titanium—for example, the Wind Titanio from Offcarr—generally weigh around 10 kg, carbon fiber and other new materials are driving down weight even further. Members of Team USA at the Rio Paralympics used a wind tunnel-tested racing wheelchair with a carbon fiber chassis. This is likely to become the norm for many high-end sports wheelchairs, although they will remain prohibitively expensive for many users.
Innovative manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing also will have an increasing impact on wheelchair design. Wheelchair basketball players already enjoy 3D-printed seats that are individually molded to fit their body contours, while cutting-edge wheelchairs now feature 3D-printed steering systems and foot bays.
Check out our previous story about the made-to-measure 3D-printed GO wheelchair.
Above and Beyond
Using a wheelchair for handisports on a flat surface is one thing, but taking one across rough ground is quite another. Yet developments in all-terrain wheelchairs, such as the Black Diamond TrailRider from Vancouver-based Kawak and the Joëlette from Ferriol-Matrat, mean that activities such as hiking, trekking and off-road racing are no longer off-limits for those with reduced mobility.
The Joëlette is the flagship product of its Saint-Etienne-based maker. Pushed and pulled by two volunteer “sherpas,” it gives even the most mobility-challenged people—muscular dystrophy sufferers, multiple sclerosis victims and quadriplegics—access to rough paths and trails normally inaccessible to conventional wheelchairs. It also allows participation in races, including marathons.
“The real innovation comes in the one-wheel configuration, with the possibility of adding electrical assistance, or an extra wheel in our double-wheeled version,” explained Claudie Brossat, Ferriol-Matrat’s international business developer.
With hydraulic disc brakes, a hydropneumatic shock absorber and a high-strength steel frame, the Joëlette folds easily for transportation. Launched in 2016, the latest version is even more user-friendly, with patented movable backrest and footrest that make transfers safer and easier.
Some parasport manufacturers have even ventured into areas where wheels are superfluous. Based in the French Alps, Tessier is one of the world’s leading “sitski” equipment makers. As with many other sports for people living with disability, adaptive skiing has really taken off in recent years. The French company now offers a range of single ski, double ski and “ski kart” options. Tessier’s newest product targets watersports aficionados. The Swaik is an innovative, flexible sit-wakeboard with a carbon or fiberglass seat.
“The real challenge is to make equipment suitable for most users, despite variations in disability, body shape and skill level,” said Tessier sales engineer Rémi Vallin. “To keep prices affordable, we offer standard products with numerous options and settings.”
Read more about parasports on MedicalExpo website.