BERGAMO (Italy) • After nearly 20 years working with wheelchair- bound youngsters, Mr Mario Vigentini wanted to revolutionise their quality of life, inventing a device that raises users so they are face-to-face with those standing.
The Italian drew inspiration from the Segway - the two-wheeled, self-balancing electric vehicle that allows visitors to nip around cities without walking - and came up with the "MarioWay", a hands-free, two-wheeled kneeling chair.
With its high seat, it allows users to do everything from ordering a coffee at a bar to plucking a book off a high shelf. The Italian government was so impressed it proudly showed off the chair to the Group of Seven transport ministers last month.
The aim was to create "a tool of social integration", Mr Vigentini said at his headquarters in Bergamo. The 45-year-old found that young people with disabilities were disheartened by the prejudice they faced.
Keen to change the situation, Mr Vigentini came up with the idea of "trying to put an ergonomic seat on a Segway". After making it to the final of a start-up competition, he set up a team to study the ergonomics involved and brought in a dozen people with disabilities as collaborators.
Users of traditional wheelchairs are seated so that the position "aggravates the pathologies of people with disabilities and results in other issues; digestive, respiratory, urinary or circulatory", Mr Vigentini said, adding that it also causes leg muscles to waste away.
But for users of his invention, "the upper part of the trunk is straightened", strengthening much of the unused muscles.
$31k Cost of the MarioWay which went on sale a few weeks ago; a standard electric wheelchair costs between $2,400 and $47,800.
The chair can go up to 20kmh on a battery life of 30km and is equipped with "sensors that read the position of the body", so that "if I move my upper body slightly forward, the MarioWay advances slightly", said Mr Flaviano Tarducci, the company's business development manager. "It's the same to move backwards, while to go from side to side you move your pelvis slightly left or right."
The design means that tasks such as opening doors or carrying a glass of water to a table - can be carried out with relative ease.
In hopes to help destigmatise the wheelchair, Mr Vigentini's team has even swapped notes with a company that customises Harley Davidson motorbikes.
Its thermally-strengthened hubs and hand-stitched seats are not cheap. The MarioWay went on sale a few weeks ago at €19,300 (S$30,700), while a standard electric wheelchair costs between €1,500 and €30,000.
But Mr Vigentini said he and his team are "doing everything we can" to lower the price to around €10,000 by signing a deal with an industrial production partner.
One day he hopes able-bodied people will use MarioWay too as a means of getting about town - much like a bicycle or Segway - which could help make mobility differences, between those who are disabled and those who are not, a thing of the past.