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USF dance puts new wheelchair into motion

Since childhood, USF dance instructor Merry Morris has been in touch with human motion, often incorporating roller skates into her dance routines.

It was her past experiences that inspired the creation of a hands-free wheelchair designed to help handicapped individuals dance – a project that has been adopted by engineering professors and students in the USF Center for Assistive, Rehabilitation and Robotic Technologies (CARRT).

“The chair is an extension of their body,” she said. “From an artistic and aesthetic perspective, it’s not just getting them from place to place. It’s, ‘How do we help them express themselves?'”

On Tuesday, Morris’ brainchild was put to work in her choreographed dance piece, “Pause and Play,” which used dancers on foot and in the wheelchairs to create a constant vision of mobility.

The piece was performed in the Marshall Student Center Ballroom as part of the “Accessibull” celebration, an all day event that showcased the abilities of and raised awareness for students with disabilities.

Kathryn DeLaurentis, a professor of engineering and an adviser for the project, said a prototype of the chair was created in 2006 and completed last year.

The original prototype, which was patented in July, moves in the direction its rider leans, using bell-shaped sensors positioned under the chair that varies voltage output based on the amount of force applied.

A small joystick positioned near the feet allows a user to get in and out of the chair without it moving.

“It’s a different way of operating the chair,” DeLaurentis said. “What I’ve heard from the folks who have used the

chair, who have disabilities (and) who would normally be sitting in a chair, they say they feel free. They don’t have to worry about their hands being on a joystick all the time. They can just lean and it operates all the time.”

A second prototype is scheduled for completion at the end of the spring semester and will fine-tune the mechanics of its predecessor. A bracket system in the new prototype will allow the seat to move in a complete circle.

“I would say that that is going to be closer to what could actually be used for the general public,” DeLaurentis said. “It still would be a prototype, but would be a much higher level version of the first one.”

Currently, Morris is putting the chairs to work in her choreography.

“In a way, there (are) a lot more creative options,” Morris said. “You’ve got a rolling device. Human beings typically don’t roll.”

Michelle Smith, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, came to USF after a career of training with ballet companies and became involved in the project after learning of the integration of engineering and the arts.

“It’s perfect for the performing arts,” she said. “It gives a lot of freedom to the upper body. Basically, the dancer, or whoever is using the chair, can use their upper body as a form of expression. Whereas, before there hands were on the wheel or a remote control or joystick, they can fully interact with other dancers in the area.”

For Catherine Seybold, a USF alumna and retired administrator who uses a traditional wheelchair, the increase in mobility makes all the difference.

“When I first got into the chair, I was quite nervous because I didn’t know if I would have enough core strength to stay balanced,” she said. “It was like riding a bike for the first time. I had to get my point of balance and start moving in order to gain confidence. After a few minutes, I was fine and I felt a new sense of freedom, independence and expression.”

DeLaurentis said that judging by the gasps heard coming from the audience at the performance, the chair will allow wheelchair users to be viewed in a different light.

“People will see it go by and I’ve heard people say, ‘What was that?’ They don’t even recognize that it was someone in a wheelchair,” she said. “It was just like someone going by as if they were walking by. It really gives a different impression.”