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Beacon blog: A great idea whose time should be now

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 27, 2010 - I LOVE great ideas. Solutions. Effective approaches.

If I were asked to nominate "the best idea wasted," it would be the IBOT wheelchair invented by Dean Kamen using his Segway technology.

Segway, you'll recall, is that two-wheeled device that takes a standing rider and never tips over due to the gyroscope technology created by Kamen's company DEKA. It's a remarkable invention.

Out of that technology came the IBOT power chair. If you want to see it in action, check out this short YouTube video. 

By the grace of God, I'm not in wheelchair. However, over the past few weeks a young man has been taking a class in our building and he is in a wheelchair.

His story is pretty intense. He survived his home being bombed in Somalia at the age of 5, an incident that took the lives of both his parents. He made it to the United States and after about 17 years of living here he pulled up to a stoplight one evening when a group of men in the car next to him opened fire. He was shot several times, suffered a spinal cord injury and now his legs are paralyzed.

I have been watching as he struggles to perform the daily tasks of life so many of us take for granted. It's a struggle to get a glass from the cupboard. The cups and sugar and cream by the coffee maker are completely beyond his reach. The door is not automated.

And, of course, he is not alone. An estimated 1.6 million Americans living outside of institutions use wheelchairs, according to the National Health Interview Survey on Disability. Most (1.5 million) use manual devices, with only 155,000 people using electric wheelchairs. Wheelchair users are among the most visible of the disabled, experiencing among the highest levels of activity limitation and functional limitation and among the lowest levels of employment.

About 10 years ago, I was watching the television show "Dateline" when I saw the first story about the IBOT. I knew right away that was a miraculous device with its abilities to traverse rough terrain, climb stairs and raise the driver up to eye level when the wheels "stack up." The "Dateline" segment showed a man playing catch with his son as the chair balanced on two wheels.

I remember thinking, "Wow! This is going to change so many lives!"

Following its television debut that night, the IBOT was licensed to Johnson & Johnson, which invested over $100 million dollars in bringing it to market. The chair retailed for about $26,000.

Independence Technologies (a division of Johnson & Johnson) reported that only 400 units were sold in 2007 and that low sales led to the decision to cease production in 2009. The IBOTS will only be supported through 2013 -- a real problem when you consider how advanced they are.

The rights to the IBOT revert to Kamen's company, and it is unclear if anyone else will step up to resume production.

To me, it's a tragedy. I understand that the Americans with Disabilities Act has helped make many places more accessible, but "many" is not the same as "all."

I think about the young man I have been watching lately. I think about people in power chairs dangerously driving down the street because the sidewalks are often obstructed and inaccessible in real terms. I think about all the small businesses and other places that are not required to be accessible or can't afford to make the necessary changes and the customers they lose. I think about people for whom just getting out of the house is a huge challenge.

I think about a wheelchair that could change all that, but isn't because it can't turn a profit right now.

There's probably competition for the "best idea wasted," but this certainly must be at the top of the list.

Some things just don't make sense to me.