People-Powered Wheelchair Lift

University of Wisconsin Wheelchair Lift Is Access-Friendly

Karen Kepler, the principal at Emerson Elementary School in Madison, Wisconsin, realized how outdated her school’s building was after a grandmother in a wheelchair came to watch a school performance.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.

Emerson Elementary School

“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.

Funicular Component Diagram

“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.

Testing Wheelchair Lift

“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.

Funicular Wheelchair Lift in Action

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?


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6 thoughts on “University of Wisconsin Wheelchair Lift Is Access-Friendly

  1.'Dennis Clark

    The wheelchair lift looks impressive.
    I hope you have a wide variety of real wheelchair users try it out to provide suggestions.
    Do you have an electrical assist for those who cannot power it with their arms?
    Many power chairs have their drive wheel in the center or even front.
    Is there a safety mechanism to keep wheelchairs from launching off the front end of the lift?
    See whether a power chair can beat the current safety mechanisms.
    Good luck. It looks like a very promising, useful, inexpensive device.

    1. Susan Hawkins

      Hi, Dennis! Thanks for writing. The Funicular wheelchair lift is, at this point, still a prototype designed built by Professor Jay Martin and his students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We contacted the professor, who told us they’re working on a powered component at the moment, and it’s still in the process of being tested for safety with a variety of mobility chairs. The Funicular won’t be available for purchase until they’re fully satisfied with the product. We hope this helps. Thank you for following our blog!


    This is great if the person in the wheelchair has the upper arm strength. What happens if they are by themselves and can’t do that?

    1. Susan Hawkins

      Hi, Valerie! Thanks for writing! We actually contacted Professor Martin to ask that very question. You’ll be happy to know they’re presently working on a powered component for the wheelchair lift, which is still in the prototype phase. They’re still not sure when the lift will be ready for market, but it should be incredibly helpful for many when it does!


    Hopefully they make one that can clear 10 steps or so. The “hysterical” society of our fine town has deemed the POST OFFICE a historical site and will not allow a wheelchair ramp to be built. GRRRRRRR, not happy. So I have to park around the back of the PO, ring the doorbell and conduct my business from in back. What am I, a second class citizen? OK, off rant now.
    I run three different chairs for different applications so a manual/power assist switch could be an option, as well as being weather resistant for outdoor installations. Great that someone came up with this idea. Many Kudos to Global Precision, and the schools Engineering Department folks.
    Other Suggestions: As soon as the rollers start to turn, have a gate raise to lock in the front wheels; Simple guardrails all the way around, the entrance and exit ones can be the gates; Solar panel to power a gel/deep cell battery to power the contraption can be marketed as a Green technology.

    1. Susan Hawkins

      Hi, Mr. Bill! Awesome ideas! We appreciate your sharing them with us. This article may help with your post office problem. Scroll down to the section titled Issue: Historically Significant Facilities. We hope this helps. Thanks for reading our blog!

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