Karen Kepler, the principal at Emerson Elementary School in Madison, Wisconsin, realized how outdated her school’s building was after a grandmother in a wheelchair came to watch a school performance. That single event inspired a chain of events that led the University of Wisconsin-Madison to create a new wheelchair lift they hope will help make accessibility possible in previously inaccessible places.
“That night we—me and a custodian—carried a grandmother up the stairs so she could see the performance,” she said. “So since then it stuck in my mind of a need we had in our school.”
The building is 93 years old, and all four entrances to the school have stairs. Three years ago, while giving a tour to a donor, she expressed her desire to make the school more accessible.
The donor sought the help of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Professor Jay Martin was more than willing to help. He and his students designed what they’re calling the Funicular, a platform that uses rollers and a modified chain hoist to move up existing stairways.
“We wanted the lift to be as simple yet as elegant as we could make it so that it didn’t eliminate use of the staircase, that it was of course safe,” said Martin, who is also head of university’s Center for Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology.
Bruce Goeser, the director of technical services at Global Precision, also uses a wheelchair. When he saw the invention, he was impressed by its simplicity. Many places cannot make the changes necessary to accommodate wheelchairs, due to historical building statuses or lack of space, which makes the Funicular an outstanding solution for access.
“I know of some buildings on the National Register of Historic Places that are not allowed to have a larger ramp in the front so I’ve been carried up and down stairs in those facilities,” Goeser said.
Global Precision donated the parts for the Funicular, and several companies have expressed interest in manufacturing the lift. It’s still in the prototype phase, so it’s not quite ready for production.
“The Funicular itself will probably be, will be significantly less [costly] than any alternative because of its inherent simplicity,” the professor said.
Its simplicity and the low price point will likely make the Funicular a popular option in a variety of settings. Emerson Elementary raised funds for an addition that includes an elevator, but Principal Kepler is very proud that her school started the wheels turning for an invention that will help so many people.
“Warms my heart because it really started with a school tour and a very kind donor,” Kepler said.
Watch how it works in the video! Are there a few places where the Funicular would come in handy for you?