Thursday Oct 20, 2022

A Chat with Dr. Jaimie Borisoff: On the Forefront of Wheelchair Design

Accessibility affects many people, and even one day, perhaps yourself. In this Encouraging Abilities Podcast, we connected with Dr. Jaimie Borisoff who runs a development program at BCIT with an eye on designing better wheelchairs and other adaptive equipment that helps people stay included.




A Chat with Dr. Jaimie Borisoff: On the Forefront of Wheelchair Design


Welcome to another episode of our Encouraging Abilities podcast. I am your host, Evan Kelly, Communications Manager here at DDA. Now, over the past few episodes, we've been talking about accessibility, and not just for people with developmental disabilities, but for anyone really who needs adaptive technology or even big changes to the world around them. Now, the thing is that it's likely at some point going to include each and every one of us as we get older. So it's not just people who have been injured or people with developmental disabilities.

can affect us all. Now we've talked with accessibility authors, lawyers and design consultants and today we're talking with Dr. Jamie Borosoff. He directs research out at BCIT and UBC here in the Lower Mainland. Now he has one of those resumes and levels of education that are really off the charts. You got to listen to some of this. He's the former Canadian research chair, rehabilitation engineering design at BCIT, adjunct professor, Department of Occupational Science and

Director of Make Plus Applied Research Group. That's again a BCIT. He's got a PhD in neuroscience and a Bachelor of Science in engineering physics. I mean, it's just quite a list. So Dr. Borisov focuses his research on people with spinal cord injuries and other mobility issues. One focus of his work is on expanding people's ability to interact more fully with others, the environment and the world. In the long term, Dr. Borisov wants to merge current models

wheelchairs, for example, with newer technologies like robotics in order to increase the ways in which technology can improve the lives of people with spinal cord injuries. So thank you for joining us today, Doctor. Yeah, it's a pleasure, Evan. It's great to be here. So what got you interested in this kind of work and research?

I'll make no bones about it. This is a lot of this coming from my own personal experiences. I am a wheelchair user myself. I have a spinal cord injury from a car accident over 30 years ago. And really ever since that event, and kind of, I guess, due to the nature of

the way I think about things and, you know, being kind of an engineer at heart, I always started thinking about problem solving, various aspects of my life that were more difficult than it was before the injury. Now, were you an engineer first before your accident? No, I was in first year university actually, or just after that. So I was mulling over at that time, what exactly to do, what exactly to major in. And I had a few thoughts about that. And...

I did migrate towards engineering in the end, and that was the right decision. But I'd always been, you know, someone that tinkered and took things apart. I always took my bike apart or radios apart and that sort of thing as a kid. So it was kind of a natural place for me to go. So that was 30 years ago when you started your education. And, you know, obviously things have, you know, changed in that time. How much better, in terms of schools, in terms of students accessing schools, how much better has it gotten?

Great question. It's gotten a lot better in some ways. And in some ways actually we're a bit further behind. Let me explain what I mean by that. If we go back over 30 years ago.

This was shortly after Rick Hansen's Man in Motion tour and all the visibility and awareness he brought to spinal cord injury and wheelchair access and general accessibility and disability. Vancouver is also a relatively new city compared to older cities, say in Quebec or in Europe.

And so we were ahead of the game. That being said, I was a student at UBC. It's a big campus. It has a lot of old buildings. There was a lot of access challenges, a lot of service entrances, a lot of back doors, a lot of working with the registrar's office to move classes into accessible buildings, but they were accommodating and they got it done. Then around that time as well in the U.S.

As you're probably aware of, and your listeners are probably aware of, the American with Disabilities Act, the ADA was passed. And when I think about some of my travels around that time, you know, again, Vancouver was ahead of the game. But then over the next few decades, the US, almost everywhere in the US became accessible. If I think about going to a hotel in the United States,

every hot tub, every pool has a lift into it, for instance. Almost every building is accessible. And it got that way because of the ADA and the litigious nature of it and the teeth it had in it. And in terms of there's a lot of innocent bystanders along the way, but in the end, it created a pretty accessible society.

And so I think in that regard, we've been passed by actually in a lot of ways. And, you know, we can have a new, a new trust fund here in Vancouver, for instance, which again, should be way ahead of the game given everything we do and where we're coming from, and, you know, have a table that's accessible. I might have only high tables in it, for instance, which just strikes me as being bizarre how they can get like a license or a business license to do that. So.

We still have a ways to go. Yeah, I mean, when you talk about that, I was out recently with a friend of mine who does use a wheelchair. And we were at a local club, and he got in to do some photography in the front entrance, no problem. And we looked around out the back, and it's nothing but stairs. So it seems like there's places that need to be fixed or need to be addressed. Do you still see too much of that, in particular in Vancouver?

Yeah, a little bit too much of it. And you know, I'm being picky, I think, a little bit. Again, I think back 30 years ago, and I was going to go to a restaurant, I didn't know, I would phone ahead quite often and say, hey, are there going to be access issues? Are there stairs? Is there a bathroom? That sort of thing. So I never do that anymore. Occasionally it backfires. But it's pretty rare now. So certainly we've made some impressive strides. But now I think we're getting to the point

We want to get that last 10% basically and there's a lot of work to be done still to achieve that. Absolutely, no. Do you find the perspective of people with disabilities missing in the engineering field?

Yeah, if I think of the wheelchair companies I've interacted with over the years, and I know many of them now, I've interacted with many at trade shows and conferences, I've visited several of them, there's not many wheelchairs with disabilities in those offices. I was at a local wheelchair company about 15 years ago,

that wasn't accessible. Actually their office wasn't accessible so that that's kind of an interesting example. Can you tell me a little bit about the the the make plus let me just go back up to the make plus applied research group that you're out there UBC or sorry BCIT? Sure make plus is a group of researchers of 15 of us.

I direct that now. It's something that I recently took over. I'm proud to say that I recently had the opportunity to pick on. We have a mandate from BCIT and the province of BC to interact with local industries, local companies and also other academic groups, say at UBC or SFU, and we have collaborations actually across Canada for that matter. And we collaborate on applied research projects.

So we think about a company, a smaller company that perhaps doesn't have an R&D group. Maybe they don't have a group of engineers or perhaps specialized equipment or the resources to pull off some sort of R&D project. That's where we come in, we'll partner with them. We have an industrial designer so we can design and prototype pretty much anything.

Now how many of those type of projects get to the market? I'm just looking on the website right now, you've got this little doggie in his dog wheelchair. And some of that obviously has reached. So is the idea of this to put things into market? Absolutely, that's the goal. And given our focus with partnering with industry,

And we're talking about for-profit companies that have employees, they have revenue targets, they have profit aspirations, right? They are only doing their R&D projects to do for their business interests. And of course, many of them are doing things to make a difference in people's lives too. We do many medical device projects, for instance, in that regard. So, you know, we've had a lot of great success with, you know,

projects that have led directly to products that are in the market now. You were involved in developing the Elevation Wheelchair. Can you tell me about that?

Yeah, that's right. That's something I started doing actually in grad school before I came to BCIT, but it certainly overlapped with some of my BCIT work as well. And that was a project whereby I was dissatisfied with my current technology that I had available to me that I could purchase in the marketplace. I'm a manual wheelchair user. I didn't like necessarily what I was being offered.

to kind of satisfy what I wanted out of a manual wheelchair. Is it an electric wheel, like a wheelchair? Is it something that raises by itself or is it something that where, I mean, if your legs are the problem that you can like pump it up with your arms kind of thing? Yeah, more of the latter. So it's completely a manual wheelchair. And so let me tell you a little bit about the, sure, a bit of the motivation behind it.

As you listeners probably know, if you can think of a manual wheelchair, a person in the community in their manual wheelchair, it has a fixed seat. It's around a typical height of a chair in the community. You can get under tables. They're now the modern ones are very lightweight. They're easy to push, they're maneuverable. They work really well in those regards. But there's a couple of things that they don't do well.

And one of them is if you think about a sport wheelchair, for instance, this is a wheelchair that you might use for racing or in my case, I played wheelchair basketball. So I played for Team Canada. That's a whole other story, but I can tell you about that later. But in playing basketball at a high level, I would sit differently than I would every day. I was sitting much lower. I was in a better position to have good balance and to be able to exert force on my wheels, to go faster and these sort of things.

to push that chair than my daily chair. At the same time, when I was in grad school, I had to work at countertops in the lab. And so I had to get up higher. And I was fortunate enough to be able to use a standing wheelchair. This is a wheelchair that stands you completely upright. But those are big, they're bulky, they're cumbersome, they're not lightweight, you can't throw them in your car easy. And I also found that I wasn't standing usually at all. And I was using

I found very useful. And so my design goal and thought process was, what can I get the best of both worlds? Can I get up to countertop heights? Can I get up to partial standing?

And then can I get down into a low, aggressive wheeling position to wheel around the community a little easier. And that design thought process led to the elevation wheelchair, which is a ultra light wheelchair, it's lightweight, it pushes really well, but it lets you get into these two more extreme sitting positions. Now is that on the market today? It is, yeah, it's on the market. It's made by a group called PDG Mobility.

manufactured and distributed around the world. Do you own the patent to that? That's correct, yes. I have several patents for it that PDG now controls and I consult for them still and so that there's a bit of disclosure there as well that I do get paid for some of the sales of those chairs. Well I would hope so. Now that brings me to the next question, is that an expensive

It is an expensive chair. And unfortunately, anytime where you're doing something different, that's a bit out of the norm. That's kind of a bit different from a typical line item, so to speak, in a funding matrix, it is more expensive. And that's, you know, one of the challenges.

marketing something like this to the broader population in different jurisdictions in North America and around the world for that matter. And that's, you know, that seems to be one of the sticking points for the disability community is that people generally don't understand that there's all this added cost when you've got these disabilities. Absolutely, yeah, and I've, you know, being in

at academic institutions and speaking to engineers and students and many people, there's this kind of notion that a manual wheelchair is kind of like a bicycle and they're kind of both made out of tubular metal welded together, aluminum or steel or something like that and why are they, wheelchairs so expensive compared to you know a bike you can buy at Walmart or something like that and and that we probably don't have time to get into it but there's a lot of reasons

for that and it is a medical product. There's prescribers, there's funders, there's all sorts of, it's customized quite often, it's fitted to the person. There's all sorts of good reasons why it is more expensive and it's relatively low volume compared to a consumer product like a bike. You're exactly right, it is difficult for people that don't have good funding sources and good insurance plans and we think of Canada as being a fairly flat

people having access to the same things and well that's unfortunately not true. No it's not. In this regard it's really how you ended up with your disability and how that came to be and there are haves and have nots unfortunately in our industry. Yeah and it's you know that's obviously a huge concern so how do we make these kind of devices more affordable for everyone who needs it? Well we

We hopefully keep innovating and keep expanding and things hopefully get cheaper over time. And unfortunately, that hasn't happened with our chair. It hasn't, you know, never had got the volumes up where that happens. There's a lot of reasons for that, I think. But I think on the whole, these types of wheelchairs have gotten cheaper or I should say the quality has gone up.

And the price has stayed the same over the years, if I think back, you know, what I could get now compared to what I could have over 30 years ago. So that's certainly happened, quality's gone up. But yeah, the prices can get really difficult then. And now what we're seeing in the market, we're seeing carbon fiber and titanium and some more exotic materials being used, again, like the bike industry. And if you think about, you know, say a mountain bike, you can spend, you know, $900 on a mountain bike or you can spend $9,000 on a mountain bike.

Absolutely. Or more if you want. And so our industry is not dissimilar in that regard. You know, we've been talking about sort of that prevailing attitude in society. I mean, I think that people, sometimes people...

don't understand even the emotional connection for someone who uses a wheelchair. You may have seen in the news a lot lately about this young lady whose wheelchair was damaged and even lately lost by airlines. Do you see general attitudes and policies improving for people with limited mobility or is it still an uphill battle? Well that's an interesting question. I've been...

in that situation myself, I've had a chair damaged, I've had a chair lost temporarily only. I don't think I've ever had it more than a few hours or a day without it, but I do sympathize with that. It's a tricky problem and I understand why these things make the news when they happen. But I guess at the same time we

I do understand that this is something that is not as common as probably as we think it is in terms of, you know, people taking these high-end wheelchairs on planes. I'm sure it happens every day, but I'm sure not every airport and every airline deals with it every day. And it's unfortunate. And it...

it has, you know, what does it come down to? It probably comes down to training and awareness and understanding that again these things aren't a set of golf clubs that maybe a businessman is taking on a business trip, right? It's literally an extension of the person and exactly how do we how do we get that across, right? That these require more care and more attention and it's a tricky thing to navigate. Now are there any other newer designs or projects that

There are always interesting things we're working on. That's a short answer. I can speak about a couple in my own lab. You mentioned that I'm the former Canada Research Chair in Rehabilitation Engineering Design. I was doing that, or I became director at MC+, but I was doing it in parallel with that group and with many researchers in that group. And that work is still continuing. We're still going after federal funding to continue much of that work.

And we have two broad categories of research going on under that stream. And one of them is around wheelchairs and wheelchair mobility. We're getting really interested in electric assist. If you think about what we see locally now and certainly around the world about e-bikes, how that's exploding.

with bike paths and that sort of thing. We're seeing a lot of really cool products now coming into the manual wheelchair market. I'm not even talking about power wheelchairs, it's a whole other area that we could delve into, but in terms of manual wheelchairs, we're seeing about products that can be attached to manual wheelchairs or wheels that can be electric now, just like an e-bike.

and really seeing now this hybrid approach to to manning wheelchairs and we're doing a lot of work in that regard especially having a goal to get people into more inaccessible areas and by that I mean say off-road say trails think about our our parks and forests and beaches for instance and and and then whenever I talk about this with with other people they say what about the rest of

And we can all imagine how difficult snow is with wheelchairs. And I know it is, I'm being facetious, but we don't think about it quite as much here in the Lower Mainland, but in the rest of Canada and certainly the rest of BC for that matter, snow and wheelchairs do not mix well together. And so we have a lot of interest in how a power assist and different components attached into manual wheelchairs can help with that.

Well, that sounds really good. It's kind of a double-barreled question. Have you seen much change in the push for accessibility in your field in terms of education? And is there a growing student body in this area of research? Are you getting a lot of students wanting to get involved with accessible engineering or accessibility engineering? Yes, is the short answer we have. There's always been, I think, great interest

in this area, it's creative, people can really put their engineering hat on and think about their studies and really apply it. There's this very real notion of you're helping people directly if you can make a difference in that regard. Unfortunately, the other tale here, though, is that we are a relatively small industry, and so if we train

young students, engineers to be specifically specialized in say assistive technology or wheelchair design, they're going to have trouble finding jobs. There's only a handful of engineering jobs in wheelchair companies in Canada for instance. It's, I don't know what the number is, but it's probably under 50 Canada-wide, which is a relatively small number. Locally here, it's,

probably less than 10. And so how do you train a bunch of engineers to want to become better wheelchair designers and not have jobs for them to go to? That's I guess at the end of the day, it's still a niche market no matter what. In the end, exactly. It's still a relatively small market again, compared to broader consumer products, right? And so what we try to do is engage people in our work, our research, our projects, but hopefully they're getting a well-rounded kind of experience that they can apply to anything.

And so we do a lot of work around engaging the end user, for instance, when you have a student doing a project, they may have an idea about, hey, this would be a great feature on a manual wheelchair, for instance. But before we let them just go ahead and do that, we say, well, maybe you should ask a bunch of people in manual wheelchairs to see what they think first is.

So we kind of want to get away from the solution looking for a problem and focus on the problems people have and getting the engineers, the students to engage with them and understand the problem before they go out and try to make better solutions. That can be then applied to anything, any problem. Well, for sure. Now, we've been talking a lot about wheelchairs and obviously limited mobility with legs. Are you working on any projects that help the upper part of the body?

mobility? We don't do a lot directly in our lab but one area we do a lot, we are doing a lot of work and that touches on that and that's general exercise. We're doing quite a bit with adaptive exercise equipment.

If you go to a local gym and you're a wheelchair user, you'll find generally a lack of options about different machines you could use, different cardiovascular machines, like the lipic machines or exercise by treadmills and all the different options that people have.

So we did one recent project which is quite interesting. And this is a really fun with researchers from SFU, UBC and BCIT, where we made rowing machines, a couple of different types. There's a stand up rowing machine called a ski ergometer. And that's just your conventional rowing machine where you sit down on a small seat and use your legs and to row back and forth. Because these are common machines that we see all over the place, but they're not very friendly for realtor users.

And so we need a project with this group of collaborators to make it more wheelchair accessible so that you could just wheel up to a machine, not have to get off your chair to get into a, say, a small seat, but you could just wheel up to it, make a few adjustments to this support bracket that we have. It's almost like an amusement park where you hop into your amusement park seat, then you bring down a securement device on your lap, for instance, so you don't fall out. That's an analogy,

charred rowing but it gives you the support so you can come up easily and start rowing and getting a great cardiovascular workout really quickly. That sounds really cool. Yeah it is and we've actually have several of these machines out there in the community. There's about 14 or 15 sites across Canada that have these machines now. We call it the A-Row, the adaptive rowing machine and the AST, the adaptive skiing machine.

So, you know, your listeners can look for those. Absolutely. So just a couple more questions here for you. What are some of the biggest challenges you've had to face when it comes to this line of work and designing and getting stuff to the market? It's the last part of your question. It's like getting stuff to market. That's always the biggest challenge. And I'm not alone in that.

you can almost ask anybody that wants to make a better widget, make better assistive technology is easier to do than it is to deliver it into the community in a way that other people can get access to it. You said it a couple of times, I think, in this conversation about ultimately, this is a niche market that is sharing the case with assistive technology across the board. So there's not a whole lot of

coming from industry to create new products, new innovation. We're not the tech industry in Silicon Valley, for instance, that would be the gold standard, I guess, about innovation and how to get things to market. We have hundreds of users, dozens of users, or hundreds of users, occasionally thousands of users for certain devices only, depending on the device.

That is always the trick and we are always struggling with how to do that more effectively. And how can organizations like DDA better serve the disability community from your perspective? I think things like you're doing right now, Evan, awareness and education. I think about the one great example I've been involved with for a long time now, this elevation wheelchair, which was developed locally here in the lower mainland. I will still all meet people.

in my own community that have never seen this chair, that have maybe purchased two wheelchairs in 10 years and have never been shown it by a therapist or by a dealer. And I understand that they've been shown it, they tried it, they want it, and it wasn't right for them. They didn't feel it was right for them, but sometimes it's just getting that knowledge and that awareness of options and what types of products are out there. It's...

it's again easier said than done. And so that's always been a challenge. It's a challenge in sports as well, I think. I've been involved with wheelchair basketball for, you know, for over 30 years. And again, there's people that have been in chairs that have been active that don't know about the opportunities that you can have in adaptive sport, for instance, in all the different programs. And it's just, you know, getting that message across as well as possible is at least

I guess the low hanging fruit that we can all do a better job of. Absolutely. Well, I think that about wraps it up for another edition of DDA's Encouraging Abilities podcast. Our guest today has been Dr. Jamie Borosoff, director of MAKE+, British Columbia Institute of Technology. We've been chatting about technology to help create a more accessible world for people with spinal cord injuries. Thanks for joining us today, Dr. Borosoff. Thanks, Evan. It was a pleasure talking to you.


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