Rock climbing for the disabled

Disabled explorers reach new heights

Image credit: Bertie Guczki, Makingtrax, Aurora Photos

No trail is too rough, no rapid too turbulent, or no mountain too high for a new generation of technology-assisted disabled adventurers.

We were climbing in the foothills of the mountains on the island of Tenerife. My climbing partner, my 25-year-old daughter, huffed and panted as we cut our way through the bushes, me lagging as she forged the path ahead. We stopped to admire the view below – a vast expanse of land, a tempting emptiness on this otherwise crowded island. Then we turned our eyes and aimed back upwards.

I thought the only mountains my daughter would ever climb were metaphorical. She is a wheelchair user. Yet with the aid of a Joelette, a one-wheeled chariot designed to enable disabled adventurers to travel on any terrain, she could explore a new world and conquer new heights.

Adaptive technology has helped disabled travellers not only to climb mountains, but also to tackle raging rapids, race down ski slopes and navigate their way through unfamiliar empty landscapes. “The unknown can be daunting for anyone, let alone someone travelling with extra needs,” says Jezza Williams, founder of New Zealand-based adaptive adventure specialist Making Trax. Williams – a wheelchair user – is also a paraglider, rough-road rider and all-round adventurer. “Harnesses, adaptive equipment, information websites, trusted adventure companies, social media for accessible information, WhatsApp communication to a trusted travel consultant – these all give reassurance to travellers,” he says.

Karen Darke, a British gold-medal Paralympic handcyclist, has handcyled through the Himalayas, climbed El Capitan and sea-kayaked around Canada. She says simply: “I’m 100 per cent reliant on technology.”

It’s estimated that 15 per cent of the global population have some form of disability, making them the world’s largest minority group. Studies estimate the annual worth of inclusive tourism at £12.4bn and growing.

David Lyons-Black is an accessible travel specialist and wheelchair user and has done the EdgeWalk 356m up on Toronto’s CN Tower. “As more items are designed to make it easier for disabled people to move and travel, the world is opening up for them,” he notes.

The world certainly opened up for my daughter when she first used a Joelette with Spanish company Montana Para Todos, which is committed to making mountains accessible for all. The all-terrain chair is named after its developer Joel Claudel, a French alpine mountain guide. He used to go climbing with his disabled nephew Stephane, taking him in a backpack until he grew too old to carry. Claudel then designed a chair that could carry him and navigate mountainsides. He produced the prototype in just two days and took Stephane up the Atlas Mountains in Morocco.

The Joelette looks and works rather like a sedan chair and has just a few components: a bucket seat, a central wide wheel and four bars for two guides who are needed to manoeuvre the chair without having to exert great physical force. The rear guide handles balance and the front guide controls traction and gives direction. The frame is welded steel tubing. There’s a hydro-pneumatic shock absorber for optimum comfort, but my daughter still found it a bumpy ride. It can fold into a car boot.

The Joelette is now produced by French manufacturer Ferriol-Matrat based in Saint Etienne, a region historically known for its metallurgical industry. Ferriol-Matrat specialises in prototyping and tube work, so was the ideal partner to take forward the Joelette to wide availability.

While the Joelette can take you high, some disabled climbers and mountaineers want to get higher. Scottish explorer Jamie Andrew is a quadruple amputee following a climbing accident in Les Droites in the French Alps, when all his limbs became frozen. Andrew calls himself a Titanium Man rather than an Iron Man, as he relies so much on the strong, lightweight metal while travelling the world as a motivational speaker. Andrew specialises in ice climbing and, with the help of prosthesis engineers, has designed special prostheses with ice axes and crampons. He undoes his bespoke arms and feet and replaces them by use of sockets.

The problem for many explorers like Andrew is that everything must be made specifically for them. While some adaptive technologies like the Joelette are becoming commercially available – like skiing feet – Andrew admits his ice-climbing gear is never going to go to market. He isn’t developing prototypes – they just work for him. Karen Darke, who is paralysed from chest level, also must have her handcycles and canoes adapted just for her. Like many disabled adventurers, she ends up designing them herself. For kayaking, she’s made a rigid foam shape with fabric and ratchet straps to give her appropriate back support. “All this comes at considerable expense,” she says. “That itself is a barrier.”

When possible, adventurers rely on more readily available products. “Ergonomically designed body balance adaptive chairs, belts, hoists and mechanisms are making adventure activities like bungee jumping, water rafting, zip lining, kayaking, sailing, flying planes, skiing and paragliding accessible for people with even spinal injuries, and are completely changing the way adventure experiences are accessed by travellers with disabilities,” says Neha Arora, founder of India-based company Planet Abled, which offers accessible travel solutions for people of all disabilities.

Martin Heng, accessibility manager for Lonely Planet, uses adaptations to his regular wheelchair when he’s travelling through India or Qatar, such as the Canadian-built TrailRider, sometimes described as a cross between a rickshaw and a wheelbarrow, with a similar design to the Joelette. On a beach, Heng uses the Australian company Push Mobility’s Mobi-Chair – an amphibious chair with three large, thick wheels to make crossing sand easy. When in water, the large armrests become stable flotation devices.

Vancouver-based Lyons-Black packs his FreeWheel which clips to the front of his manual wheelchair, lifting the casters from the ground and transforming it into a three-wheeler, so he can roll over dirt trails, snow and sand. The FreeWheel was invented by engineer Patrick Dougherty, a wheelchair user. “I was so frustrated trying to push around in my backyard to play with my children. My 40-year-old shoulders were popping, and I couldn’t get through the grass,” he says. “As an engineer, I knew the answer was to get the small casters out of the grass and a larger wheel out front. I started chipping away at the problems. With the help of one of my machinist friends, I cut apart my bicycle rack and welded up a crude frame. I attached a fitting on my footrest, like a trailer hitch set-up. It was pretty heavy, and I needed someone’s help to install it, but the feeling of gliding around over rough terrain was unmistakably what I was looking for.” It was further tested and refined by wheelchair users worldwide to achieve the end product.

Visually impaired people who long to explore the world also face challenges, but of a different kind. It’s often about wayfinding – knowing where you are, who you’re with and being able to read signs. “Visually impaired people rely on Stone Age technology – a cane with nothing inside it,” says Jean Marc Feghali of Imperial College London, who is himself visually impaired. A chance encounter led Feghali to meet the Istanbul-based WeWALK team from the Young Guru Academy, a not-for-profit organisation that’s been working on technological adaptations for the visually impaired for over a decade. They were developing a product to enhance the standard cane – WeWALK. Now Feghali is the team’s UK head of R&D.

Feghali says WeWALK aims to transform the ancient white cane into a tool that enables visually impaired people to access and explore the world with more ease by making every cane ‘smart’. The WeWALK incorporates a gyroscope, accelerometer, compass, directional vibration motors, microprocessor, touchpad, microphone, speaker and Bluetooth Low-Energy module. It has an ultrasonic sensor, which allows the user to detect objects at all levels that a traditional cane would miss. The ergonomic design means it can be fitted to any cane, so users don’t have to replace their existing familiar aid. “Essentially it’s attaching the brains of a phone to the cane,” says Feghali. You can scroll left and right on the touchpad and hear directions from the built-in speaker or on headphones. This leaves one hand free – which is significant for a cane user. “It’s super-accessible and there’s no learning curve,” he says. “Sometimes accessible technology tries to be too difficult. It tries to be at the forefront. But it’s best to make it feel natural, not a burden to the user, not a cumbersome add-on.”

Around 1,000 WeWALKs have been sold so far and the model is continually updated. Artificial intelligence is being introduced so the device can identify how the user moves and walks, and customise their settings.

Another product helping visually impaired travellers explore the world – the MyEye 2 – already relies upon AI. MyEye was developed by Israeli visual-aid company OrCam, set up by entrepreneurs Ziv Aviram and Professor Amnon Shashua, who were supplying computer vision technology to the automotive industry for accident prevention. One founder had a family member with a visual impairment and wanted to see whether computer vision technology had any potential to help her. The goal was to develop a wearable device which would give people a level of independence that they could not otherwise have.

The first OrCam MyEye was launched in the UK in 2016 and a new version was released last year. A key point for the second generation was to make the device wireless and as discreet as possible, so MyEye 2 is a completely wireless device, and about the size of a finger. It attaches magnetically to any pair of glasses and weighs about 22g, so users can barely feel they are wearing it.

Using AI, MyEye 2 learns to recognise faces and distinguish between them. Users can assign names to faces, so the device automatically announces the person’s name as soon as it recognises them. It also uses AI to distinguish the wearer’s hand gestures as commands. The user just points to something and it will understand that as the trigger to read or identify whatever is being pointed at. The next development will be to recognise voice commands.

Disabled adventurers welcome these developments. “But the thing is, these are all standalone solutions and not for everyone, plus there is a lot of replication,” says Arora. “What is needed is to create solutions that are for all, even people without disabilities. For example, usage of Google Glass and Alexa and Google Home. There is a huge potential and a big need for these solutions to come together. People in various parts of the world are just reinventing the wheel, and not collaborating with each other for bigger and faster impact. The biggest examples are the various crowdsourced phone applications where people rate the accessibility of the place. People are still thinking from the perspective of a single disability which they face. The concept of Universal Design and solutions for everyone is still to take flight.”

Arora says it’s a continual struggle to get companies to take on the challenge of including disabled people in their travel plans. “It took me reaching out to 30 different white-water-rafting providers (all of whom called me mad and didn’t agree) before I could find the right one who is our adventure activity partner,” she says. “We still have not been able to convince the bungee-jumping service provider owner in India to allow blind and deaf people to do a bungee jump. After agreeing once, the management said a person must be physically and mentally sound to attempt bungee jumping. How in the world is a blind and a deaf person not that?”

With increasing use of advanced technologies and AI, will being a disabled explorer be easier and more adventurous than a non-disabled traveller? Rock climber Hugh Herr, an engineer and biophysicist who lost his legs in a mountaineering accident, has argued that technology can better biology. Herr developed a titanium-spiked device that could wedge itself into smaller crevices than a human foot. He made prostheses much longer than his natural leg length, so he could reach holds non-disabled climbers couldn’t, extending himself up to 8ft (2.4m) tall. As a result, Herr climbed at a more advanced level than he had before his accident, becoming the first person with a major amputation to perform on a level with elite-level, non-disabled climbers. Herr is now a professor at MIT Media Lab, where he directs the biomechatronics research group and co-directs the MIT Center for Extreme Bionics, focusing on wearable robotic systems that augment human physical capability.

All our interviewees agree that advances in technology are a real game-changer. There’s nowhere for disabled adventurers to go but out, up and into the water.

Further information

Montana Para Todos

Jamie Andrew




Planet Abled

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