Aston University: Aston University product design experts give children in low-income countries a sporting advantage with new rugby wheelchair design


The game of wheelchair rugby is being opened up to disabled children thanks to Aston University researchers.

They have designed a cost-effective child’s sports wheelchair, made from recycled plastic.

The design is the result of a project funded through the British Council’s Innovation for African University scheme, which aims to improve Africa’s entrepreneurial skills.

The child’s rugby wheelchair is aimed at encouraging children with disabilities – especially those in low-income countries – to enter the sport, build confidence and help with rehabilitation.

Research carried out in South Africa, with project partners Real Steel Wheelchairs, identified a distinct lack of resources for children’s disability sports, especially wheelchair rugby. One of the main barriers to uptake is the cost of the specific chairs. It was also identified that current designs look and sound intimidating to young children who wish to give wheelchair rugby a go.

Dr Timothy Whitehead, senior lecturer in product design at Aston University, said: “As a design team it was important for us to understand the user needs and create a wheelchair which is not only low cost, but also highly desirable and fun. We want to encourage children with disabilities to participate in sports and break down as many barriers as possible through design.”

The wheelchair has been designed with a softer, more inviting appearance than traditional chairs. The frame can accommodate a range of sizes from 8-11years old with built in adjustments.

To reduce costs and to support the circular economy the frame is made from recycled High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) that comes from sources such as plastic bottle tops, with embedded fixings.

Over the past few years in South Africa there has been an increase in innovation and manufacturing methods with HDPE. One of the project’s aims is to reduce reliance on global supply chains and set up local manufacturing of these chairs in low-income settings

Dr Whitehead led a team of two designers, Rebecca Leatherland and Keaton Hargun.

Rebecca said “We have made sure the design is repairable, by making all the components modular. We know that these chairs will have a lot of use and abuse, so parts can be quickly swapped out as needed”.

Playing wheelchair rugby helps disabled children get out of the house, make new friends and develop new skills.
Jared Mcintyre, founder of Real Steel Wheelchairs and a disabled wheelchair rugby coach, said: “As a disabled person being part of a team sport creates real comradery and friendship between people. There are also emotional and psychological benefits of getting rid of frustrations people with disabilities face.

“It’s really important that we invest in getting disabled children into sport – these design initiatives really give the community a boost and can improve the lives of many.”

The project is hoping to secure more funding in the future to progress the designs and make them a reality for disabled children in South Africa.

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