Making Exercise Equipment Accessible

Benetech doesn't make tangible stuff: we've decided that our expertise is in making electronic bits. Software and content are easily scaled up. But, the world still needs tangible things, and the market often fails to deliver them.

Rich Thesing, a long-time disability activist and fellow Fellow of the American Leadership Forum in Silicon Valley, has been thinking hard on how to make exercise equipment accessible. As someone was injured as a result of an accident, Rich knows that there can be severe consequences for people with these kinds of disabilities if they don't maintain muscle tone in their limbs. There are lots of exercycles that are in health clubs and exercise rooms around the world, but they lack minor accessibility features to make them usable. Most people who are quads have partial use of their limbs, for example, little use of their legs but partial use of their arms. Rich's problem is that he can get his first foot onto the pedal and strapped in, but that he can't get his second foot in. He needs to rotate the pedal crank one half turn and then have it pause there as he puts his other foot into the second pedal. But, standard exercise equipment won't stop there.

Rich has been pushing the manufacturers of this kind of equipment to make this kind of adaptation. He figures that it shouldn't cost much to do. But, the manufacturers are pushing back: they say it will be too expensive. So, Rich asked me what I thought.

My response was that while I wasn't a mechanical engineer, I certainly knew someone who was. My brother, Dan Fruchterman, is a senior engineering manager at a major aerospace firm. I mentioned it to Dan and his response was that it should be straightforward. Not only that, after getting information from Rich on the existing equipment, Dan threw it out to his engineering team (full of mechanical engineers) to brainstorm. They came up with several ideas to adapt the exercycles to make them work easily for many people with quadriplegia. And, none of them cost very much to implement.

So, I really enjoyed a recent lunch with Rich Thesing and my brother Dan, where they talked about ways to help the manufacturers add this minor feature. And Rich was sure to point out the topical nature of this solution: our country has plenty of newly disabled veterans coming home and going through rehabilitation. They are going to need access to exercise equipment they can use independently to ensure their long term help.

It's fun to help solve problems, even if the help is mainly connecting the right people together!


Darrell said…
Don't forget the need to ensure the accessibility of this equipment for blind people. I find it ridiculous here in the 21st century that we're still dealing with inaccessibility digital electronics of any kind. Most of them do now have the ability to deliver a level of accessibility if the proper design choices are made.
Jim Fruchterman said…
I received an update from Rich Thesing on his progress on these issues. He sent me a link to a YouTube video showing one fix to a specific exercycle.

Plus, Rich joined a subcommittee of ASTM (the folks who issue standards for exercise equipment) on universal design standards. Rich thinks that this will lead to accessibility issues addressed in the industry's standards.

And, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has announced that it is considering issuing a regulation requiring exercise facilities to provide accessible exercise equipment. There is a public comment period ending January 24.

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