Joe Olson’s DIY-Enabled Wheelchair

Joe Olson’s DIY-Enabled Wheelchair

Joe Olson is disabled but he’s also a maker with DIYability, a term used by John Schimmel on a website of that name for do-it-yourself “assistive technology.” I met Joe at the DC Mini Maker Faire on June 8. He has been in a wheelchair since 1999 when, just out of high school, he broke his neck in a diving accident that left him paralyzed.

He showed me what looked like a small “metal mitt” that he designed as a replacement for the joystick interface he uses to control his wheelchair. The standard “goalpost” joystick didn’t work for him, so he designed and 3D printed something that did work for him. He created versions that were printed in plastic but the one he prefers is metal, which he had printed on Shapeways. Now he believes others might want this type of “ErgoJoystick” and he offers to design and manufacture them. The model he uses is called Stingray, and it’s one of several featured on


Joe is originally from Marquette, Michigan, which is near Lake Superior. After his accident, he spent a period of time in rehabilitation in Colorado and then went to Michigan State University where he received a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering in 2004, and then moved on to earn a Master of Science in Rehabilitation Science and Technology from the University of Pittsburgh in 2007. In Pittsburgh he worked as a graduate student at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories under the direction of Rory Cooper, where he said “I learned the skills needed to actually build what I only could draw and imagine before.” He moved to Baltimore for a job with the government as a facilities engineer in early 2010.

Joe was at the Washington DC Mini Maker Faire with Todd Blatt and several others from the Baltimore Node Makerspace. While Joe is not a member of the makerspace, he’s visited there and gotten to know others who have helped him out. He said: “I found out about the Baltimore Node from my friends Marty McGuire, a former MakerBot employee, and Amy Hurst, a professor at UMBC whom I knew from Pittsburgh.”

“We have been friends for years,” said Dr. Amy Hurst, an assistant professor at UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) of Human-Centered Computing where her research is focusing on the potential for “Making” related to accessibility. She met Joe when both of them were graduate students in Pittsburgh working at the research center. “We both happened to move to Baltimore after graduate school and hang out often.” She said she’d talked to Joe about his controller and “how he can get these into the hands of others (i.e. manufacturing, marketing, and publicizing strategies).”

Hurst has published several academic papers on this research, which is described on her website. A 2011 paper with colleague Jasmine Tobias, “Empowering Individuals with Do-It-Yourself Assistive Technology,” outlines the opportunities for rapid prototyping tools and online communities to increase assistive technology adoption rates, expanding the alternatives beyond “off-the-shelf” solutions.

“We are studying how existing DIY culture and tools can be applied to create, modify, or enhance Assistive Technology. A new generation of affordable rapid prototyping tools make it possible for individuals to build and customize physical devices such as wheelchair accessories, prosthetics, and tools to support activities of daily living such as eating, dressing, and accessing a computer.”

Hurst added that one of her new projects is “studying ‘chairable’ computing that explores opportunities for a power wheelchair to act as a mobile computing platform.” The paper, “Wearables and Chairables: Inclusive Design of Mobile Input and Output Techniques for Power Wheelchair Users” (Carrington, Hurst, and Kane) talks about designing for life in a wheelchair.  One of the participants in the study said pointedly:

“My wheelchair is more than just a chair that I use to get around. I spend most of my day in it and I use it for most of the things that I do in and out of the house. In some ways it is like my home … it is a part of me. That’s why I need it to do more for me.”

That’s what Joe is doing, and it is important for all of us to learn more about it. I asked Joe a few questions via email.

How did you know that you could improve the joystick in your chair?

I first started designing handles out of opportunity and necessity. I had just received a new chair and my old handle didn’t fit. I had been designing in Solidworks for a couple of years and was given permission to use the 3D printer (at the research lab) for some small personal stuff. I made my first design which I thought would be just an aesthetic improvement. It turned out to be considerably better than what I used before. It also was in need of refinement, about seven years of refinement.


Can you talk about the process of developing the product?

The first design started with the idea that a handle should match the contours of the hand. I also didn’t like how my thumb hung unsupported beneath my handle. My first attempt did both those things pretty well. However, I immediately noticed as the handle moved forward my wrist would roll forward and slide off the front. I didn’t have this problem with my other handle. I realized that it was because years ago I had smashed my handle against a table and permanently bent the shaft giving the handle a backwards lean. I wasn’t going to intentionally bash up my new chair so I built the lean into the handle. It worked great! I then cut the amount of material making it lighter and cheaper to produce while maintaining all the benefits resulting in the “original” handle.

From nearly pure vanity and Solidworks hubris, I decided I wanted to make a really cool looking handle. I always liked the way the air scoops looked on high-end bicycle helmets. It took easily 10x as long to model but the final product was really cool looking. This was the Aero handle.

image02I then dipped it in red tool grip. It was more comfortable, nonslip, and flashy but had the tendency to peel. I decided to not use it on the commercial product. I used this handle for the next four years. Then one day while I was driving I realized that I was thinking about the idea of a handle wrong. It should contact as much of my hand as possible to distribute the force over a larger surface. I then started trying to model the contours of my hand. If I had access to a 3D scanner, I would have modeled it in clay. Instead I scanned my hand on my flatbed scanner with a quarter for scale. I built a virtual skeleton hand to scale in the position I imagined my hand was in, then used surfaces to build the “skin.” I then had it printed. It was pretty close but the angle was all wrong. When I fixed that, I noticed when my hand spasmed, my thumb would get caught on the protuberance between my thumb and fingers causing me to move uncontrollably (which scared the shit out of me). It took three iterations to get the protuberance right so my thumb wouldn’t get caught but still kept my hand from sliding off the front. It took two more to get the angle perfected so the hand wouldn’t slide off and the wrist was externally rotated so you wouldn’t have to lift your elbow to turn left. This was the Stingray.



Where are you now with it?  What is next or what do you need?

I’m trying to sell it! If what I make is going to help more than just me, other people need to know about the product and be able to get it. I’ve found that I’m much better at designing things than marketing them. I have a few very positive reviews from power wheelchair users with a variety of conditions. I’d love to pair up with someone who has experience and would like to take on the marketing side.

Do you think there are other problems you might solve for yourself and others?

I like to solve problems that I can test and try. I feel that the best designed things come from user/designers. Would you buy a car designed by someone who doesn’t drive? I have a few projects I’m working on but to do the really fun ones, I need some help. I want to make new power and manual wheelchairs. If you know anyone who can weld well and a person with power systems and automation experience please have them contact me!

Check out Joe Olson’s ErgoJoystick website. Please share ideas in the comments for how Joe might market his products and meet others who are designing for DIYability.

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DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

View more articles by Dale Dougherty


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