Bob Stimson used to bike 100 miles a week, ski all winter and globe-trot year-round. So when the Bloomington entrepreneur lost strength in his legs three years ago, he lost a lot.
ALS put him in a wheelchair and, in many ways, relegated him to a second-class citizenship. “When you’re in a wheelchair, you tend to get dismissed,” said Stimson, 65. “People tend to talk to the tallest person in the room.”
Shannon Thomas, a 37-year-old artist born in St. Paul, met a similar fate when she was only 8. A drunken driver crashed into the car she was riding in, breaking bones that caused swelling of her spine and led to chest-down paralysis.
Last week, Stimson and Thomas celebrated their first Thanksgiving with the iBOT 4000 Mobility System. They are bursting with gratitude for the ways it has enhanced their lives.
Years before entrepreneur Dean Kamen invented the Segway, the large, two-wheeled device marketed to the likes of mail carriers and tourists, he was contemplating another use for gyroscopes, one that would extend the mobility of wheelchair users.
Kamen’s six-wheeled iBOT operates in five different modes. In standard mode, it can reach 7 mph, a couple of miles faster than a standard wheelchair. In four-wheel drive, it can mount curbs and navigate rocky terrain. In stair mode, it can scale steps, rotating its wheels front over back. And in balance mode, it can lift users to a height of nearly 6 feet, employing six gyroscopes.
iBOT price in line but still prohibitive for many
The iBOT costs $23,900 — a $5,100 markdown from its original price when it entered the marketplace four years ago. That’s only a few grand more than some high-powered wheelchairs, once you add a seat function, alternate drive controls or special electronics.
And yet, for many, the price is prohibitive. It was for Thomas, a soft-spoken brunette who nearly cried when she discovered the iBOT on “60 Minutes.” She was the 199th person to request information from Independence Technology, the division of Johnson & Johnson that manufactures iBOTs.
Overcome with excitement, Thomas started a blog.
Soon, Thomas’ inability to afford an iBOT sunk in, and she used the blog to explain the iBOT, imagine its impact and post her photography.
She wrote with touching candor. In one entry, titled “Stairs, Stares, Everywheres,” she wrote, “Going to a New Year’s Eve party tonight at a friend’s house. Stairs to get in the house, stairs to get to the basement. Ugh. I don’t worry so much about them dropping me, but I worry about them hurting themselves.”
Five months later, Thomas heard from a man on the East Coast offering to sell his rarely used iBOT at a substantial discount. He had been looking to sell it and had stumbled across her blog online. Thomas received the iBOT in October and now chronicles its impact online.
On Oct. 15, she described her “first party as a tall person”:
“On Saturday night, I went to the first party in my life where everyone’s butts weren’t in my face. I stayed in Balance Mode the entire time, and wow, it was so much nicer to look at people eye to eye rather than looking up to everyone, straining to hear what they were saying and yelling so that they could hear me.”
On Oct. 24, she wrote: “I found out this morning that I can reach the top shelf in the frozen section at the grocery store. I had a craving for veggie sausages, and sure enough, they were on the top shelf. It was so nice to not have to ask anyone for help.”
On Oct. 30, she displayed artwork at a meeting intended to help people with disabilities start their own businesses. She wrote, “I know I wouldn’t have done it without the iBOT.”
Not every entry endorses the iBOT. Nov. 7’s was titled “Stair function is pretty much useless,” an observation others have made.
Not perfect, but benefits far outweigh problems
Still, the benefits far outweigh that disappointment, Thomas said. “It has transformed my life. There isn’t a day that has gone by that I haven’t thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I wouldn’t be able to do this if I weren’t in my iBOT right now.’ “
The physical freedom, Thomas later e-mailed, is only half of it. “It’s the emotional freedom I’ve gained that has been the biggest surprise to me.” For years, she has taken a drug to combat her intense society anxiety; three weeks after receiving the iBOT, she stopped taking it. “For the first time, I felt like I could do fine without it. And I have!”
Bob Stimson has experienced similar liberation since receiving his iBOT in February. “I don’t consider it a wheelchair,” he said, perched in his open living room, his white beard and chocolate eyes looking regal. “It’s almost like robotic skin. With this iBOT, I don’t feel like I’m disabled. I just feel like I’m inconvenienced.”
Frequenting trade shows, for instance, is much easier. “Moving through a crowd in a wheelchair, you get tired of getting in the way and apologizing,” he said. “Now I just plow ahead.” Businesspeople look him in the eye and talk to him, not the person at his side. And he can travel freely. Stimson just returned from an Alaskan cruise, where the iBOT functioned beautifully.
“It’s kept me in the game,” he said. “It’s kept me in my life.”
Christina Capecchi writes about culture and the social impact of technology. She can be reached at ccapecchi [at] minnpost [dot] com.