IIT Madras launches India's first 'standing wheelchair'

The institute designed the model after five years of dedicated research, in partnership with Phoenix Medical Solutions and Wellcome Innovations Team
The new wheelchair costs around Rs. 15,000 (Pic: IIT Madras)
The new wheelchair costs around Rs. 15,000 (Pic: IIT Madras)

IIT Madras, one of the nation’s premier academic institute, has joined forces with Phoenix Medical Solutions to develop ‘Arise’, the wheelchair that can lift its user to about 70 degrees upright, allowing them to have a normal conversation with those around them, as opposed to being looked down at with a certain degree of sympathy. Through its research and development branch, IIT Madras spent five years perfecting the ‘grid model’ with the help of its own final year students as well as experienced engineers. The radical wheelchair, priced at Rs. 15,000 per piece, was officially launched on November 5, 2019 at the IIT Madras Research Centre in Chennai, by the Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment, Shri Thaawarchand Gehlot. The event was a glamorous one, as the other dignitaries included the Managing Director of Phoenix Medical Solutions, Sashi Kumar, the Director of IIT Madras, Prof Bhaskar Ramamurthi, several of IIT Madras’ senior professors, and Prof Sujatha Srinivasan, the Founder and Head of R2D2. The minister gave a patriotic speech after lighting the lamp, which signaled the official launch of the wheelchair.

Elaborating on the importance of this venture, Prof Sujatha said that, “We have learned a lot during our Arise development journey – the importance of flexible funding focused on impact, the need for a like-minded industry partner, and the merit in involving users and the rehabilitation community in the development. We are applying these learnings to our other projects.” She explained how the wheelchair was originally a thesis project for one of IIT Madras’ final year students years ago, and how it dawned on them that this device, if brought to life, could make a significant impact on the lives of those we label ‘disabled.’ Securing the necessary funds was the first big challenge. “We knew that the funding component was going to be tough. Thankfully, we partnered with Wellcome Innovations Team, who pooled in over Rs. 6 crore. It was the kick-start that we needed,” says Sujatha.

She led the team throughout the entire process, which spanned more than half a decade. Right from conceptualisation and R&D to production, Sujatha oversaw the process the entire way. “Arise was tested on more than 50 people with spinal injuries. Their feedback was positive, with a couple of them pointing out that they were able to stand independently after three years. The wheelchair was found to be stable even in outdoor use in rural areas, on uneven terrain,” she remarks.

The Arise wheelchair resembles any other wheelchair, with almost all of the usual external features. Where it ‘arises’ to a whole other level is in the way the levers operate. When the user wants to meet or greet people the way regular individuals do, all they have to do is to turn the twin levers on both sides of the wheelchair. The intricate system of hydraulics automatically starts extending upwards, resulting in the chair being turned to around 70 degrees. This exposes a second set of levers that can be rotated, which ultimately leads to the user being held almost upright by the chair, with their feel supported by the footrest. A thick strap binds the user in place, eliminating the possibility of them tumbling out.

“We thought of making it a permanent feature, so that the user could move around in that upright position. But because of safety reasons, and the additional costs it would incur, we curbed the idea,” says Sujatha. Affordability and impact are the two words that the researchers catered to the most.

The new indigenous wheelchair certainly holds immense potential, and as evidence to this, the users of the wheelchair that day ‘stood’ for the national anthem for the very first time in their lives! 

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