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This 72 year-old reinvented the wheelchair

For over a week last year, Mr Tan Boon Ho toiled in the corridor space outside his four-room flat in Dover measuring, checking and fixing.

The former ITE lecturer had one goal in mind: To build an electronic wheelchair for his daughter, who had trouble walking after a brain tumour surgery.

He could have simply bought one off-the- rack but the most basic model cost at least $2,000. Besides, he wanted to put his engineering skills to the test.

“There’s a certain joy in seeing your ideas come to life,” the 72 year-old says in Chinese with a toothy grin.

After all, he had already built the first prototype of an electric chair – for his wife who has Alzheimer’s – a few months before. Mr Tan fixed an electric unicycle to the back of that first modified wheelchair so that he did not have to do the heavy pushing.

But the challenge he set for himself this time was to create a hybrid wheelchair that would allow the wheelchair user to steer him or herself easily and comfortably.

Mr Fix-It

At a corner of Mr Tan’s house is a toolbox that is filled with power tools of all kinds, from saws to drills and screwdrivers. Armed with this treasure box, there is almost nothing he has not fixed at home.

He proudly shows off his kitchen cabinets, which he designed and assembled himself. The bedroom shelves? Those are his handiwork too.

“Making my own cabinets are definitely cheaper, but I also enjoy the process,” he said. “Plus I get to customise the shelving to my needs.”

He has also improved the grab bars in his toilet.

“I put luminous tape around the grab bars and added a blue-coloured light that can be turned on at night so that the bars can be more easily seen,” he shared.

“I also made extensions using PVC pipes so that my wife can reach for the grab bars more easily.”

Outfitting a wheelchair with a motor was however quite a different task, which required him to work with metal and hinges. But he already had a plan in mind.

The first step was to decide what motor to use. He settled on using a simple hoverboard, which he bought online for about $200.

He then went to work with his power drills. Removing the front wheels of the wheelchair, Mr Tan installed a lightweight aluminum block in its place, which he connected to the hoverboard. A small PVC pipe was added behind the hoverboard to prevent the hoverboard from spinning.

These simple modifications allow the wheelchair user to sit on the wheelchair and move it using his or her feet. Press down to move forward, lift to stop.

“The user just needs to step lightly on the hoverboard's pads, which have sensors. Changing directions is easy as he or she only needs to tip the toes in the desired direction,” he said.

His innovative spirit was picked up on social media and he has become a bit of an Internet sensation. But Mr Tan shrugs the attention off. He prefers to see himself as an older individual open to new ideas.

“We cannot be afraid of failure. For example, while I had already thought about a wheelchair that can be controlled using the user’s feet, I didn’t know how to make one easily until I saw a hoverboard on the Internet,” he shared.

“Then, when I tried the wheelchair for the first time with the frame, I realised I didn’t make a stopper for the hoverboard and it kept swinging about uncontrollably, making it difficult to use. That’s when I added a stopper, made with a PVC pipe, behind the frame.”

He is not done with hatching up new inventions either. Mr Tan, who cycles regularly, already has his next project in mind—attaching a bicycle to a wheelchair.

“This way, the person who is pushing the wheelchair can get a workout too,” he said.

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