Case study: Australian industrial designer customises wheelchairs to improve lives
Customised wheelchairs and mobility products that were once only available to elite athletes are becoming more accessible to people with disabilities with increased awareness accelerating a growing market, according to the wheelchair basketball star Matt McShane.
Matt, the operator of Proactive Mobility in Australia, said the trend was helping change lives.
He has combined his industrial design qualifications from Griffith University with his lived experience as a person with a disability to create the business.
“I help people get fitted in the right chairs and equipment. It’s an enjoyable thing, as I have first-hand experience of how a sports chair can really change a person’s life,” he said.
Matt is in training with the Australian men’s wheelchair basketball team, the Rollers, for the 2024 Paris Paralympics. The four-time Paralympic medallists finished fifth at Tokyo last year and have vowed to be back among the medals in Paris.
Matt added that the combination of the tennis star and disability advocate Dylan Alcott being named as 2022 Australian of the Year, and the increased interest in Australia’s Paralympic success, was helping drive disability awareness.
“Any awareness is good, and it is certainly getting much better,” continued Matt.
“Technology has also caught up a bit and everyone can have some sort of access to this cool equipment now, not just necessarily the top tier athletes. The same chair that I take to the Paralympic games, you can use at a social level.”
Matt said mobility equipment could have a major impact on quality of life for a person with a disability.
“When I first got into a chair you were handcuffed to a few different brands and different suppliers,” he explained. “People now have more options to choose. With disability, everyone is slightly different as no two injuries are the same.
“Customisation is just crucial to disability really. It might be a little bit more work in making a chair slightly unique or making it to suit one individual, but the reward is just drastic. It helps independence and what you need to live the life you want to live. If it can be just one percent better, that’s a massive gain for that user.
“The chair that I’m in now compared to my first chair 12 years ago is drastically different, like what I can physically do in it, loading it in and out of the car, and it fits me better so I’m comfortable dropping down gutters and getting up gutters if I need to.
“Things like that in this imperfect world can really make a huge difference.”
When he was 18, Matt experienced the neurological condition transverse myelitis, which causes inflammation of the spinal cord. It led to him being in hospital for nine months and being told he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
Matt said it gave him the opportunity to live his “second life”.
“As an 18-year-old, my original life direction never involved a university degree, but I’m so thankful I ended up in a chair so I could experience everything I have since, pushing myself through a tough degree and growing so much more than I would have thought,” he remarked.
Choosing to remain and study on the Gold Coast in Australia, he opted for an industrial design degree, which led to the customisation business that he operates while training full-time.
Matt concluded: “I started the business to help get me through my studies but now lessons from my studies pop up in many areas of my daily work, from creative thinking and problem solving, to communication and time management skills.
“It’s helped me think outside the box and be creative in design to help solve a problem. It’s a great area to work in. I still have to work full-time while also training full-time.
“But I can do it at the Gold Coast where I can go to the beach with my laptop, so there’s nowhere better. And I get the satisfaction of helping people.”