Jul 192014

Lately I’ve been getting less joy out of my wheelchair joystick.

As my upper body strength has declined, I have found it more and more difficult to control my wheelchair using a conventional joystick. I am able to maneuver the chair okay but when I first take hold of the joystick I need to sling my arm up and around and let it drop onto the knob. Frequently that results in me jerking the joystick in one direction or another and running my feet into a wall or backing the chair into furniture. A few months ago, my physiatrist at the MDA clinic recommended I be evaluated for an alternative control system. After trying several of them, I decided that my only hope was to try to design one myself. Before I show you my concept, let me explain what I found wrong with all of the others that were available.

The first idea was a micro joystick that would require much less strength to operate. However it had a very short “excursion” in other words the distance from zero movement to full speed was something like 1/10 of an inch. Also, it was designed to be moved with a finger. Those of you with IBM will immediately see the flaws there as our fingers are among the first parts of our bodies to lose strength. I could barely get the wheelchair through the door out of my room to try it out. Even when I tried to use my thumb, the amount of fine motor control needed far exceeded my capabilities.

The next experiment was a device that would be controlled by my chin. Once again my weakness got in the way. If I reclined the chair at all, my head collapsed back into the headrest and I no longer could even reach the chin control, let alone operate it. However this control did have a longer excursion and therefore I was able to at least get the chair out the door but I found it extremely difficult to keep it going in a straight line. Furthermore any distraction to either side that caused me to turn my head also turned the chair. Picture that happening while you’re going down a sidewalk with a steep curb!

There is another type of control that is similar to the chin control and that is a head array. We determined that it would have the same failings as the chin control for me.

There are other, more extreme types of alternative controls such as the sip and puff which uses your breath for control (another of my weaknesses). One that sounded fascinating was a trackpad system which would be very similar to using the mouse on a computer. Hwever it relies on being able to control your fingers which I can’t.

In this proposed control, my thumb rests on a miniaturized joystick. My remaining shoulder muscles would slide my hand forward and back for controlling wheelchair speed while my thumb muscle (the only one left in my hand) would control the direction left and right.

In this proposed control, my thumb rests on a miniaturized joystick. My remaining shoulder muscles would slide my hand forward and back for controlling wheelchair speed while my thumb muscle (the only one left in my hand) would control the direction left and right.

So now we get to my proposed solution. I need a flat panel to rest my hand on when I first reach for the control. I have the most strength in my thumb, so it would be ideal if the joystick were waiting for me near, but slightly forward, of where my thumb would normally rest on the flat panel. I could then make a motion quite similar to the same one I use when I am controlling the mouse on my computer. I have become skilled with those motions out of necessity.

Access Medical sent my design to a company that specializes in making alternative wheelchair controls and I will let you know if they are able to come up with something for me.

  22 Responses to “An Alternative Wheelchair Control For People with Weak Hands”

  1. I follow you a lot and think this is a great idea.I hope it works out my friend good luck.????

  2. Amazing. You will leave your legacy of great ideas and problem solving skills as a benefit for others who share your disabilities. Hope this idea is successful.

  3. Looks like a very creative and useful solution. I hope they can one that works well for you. You’re obviously still writing chapters for the next edition. Keep up the good work and stay strong, Mike.

  4. I understand your problem with the joystick Mike. Look forward to seeing what the designers come up with. All the best

  5. Quite amazing, Mike. Keep us posted.

  6. You are the most amazing person with IBM that I can think of.! Best of luck with this new endevour.

    My own solution has been to learn to use the palm of my hand to control the joystick. So far, it still works for me. Like you my thumb is the only finger that I can still use for some functions. We work with what we got. Good luck!

    • Thank you Dagmar. When my wife was alive, she also found it helpful to use the palm of her hand on her joystick. It never worked well for me.

  7. Mike-
    Exceptional out of the box thinking. I applaud your creativity and look forward to yo¨using your new design. As a Biomedical Engineer with computerized equipment background, I can tell you that if they can’t design it and make a working prototype they don’t have any skills, I could do it and I have done any of this work for 10 years. I hope when I get to the point where you are in my IBM journey I come up with just as good solutions for my needs.

    • Thank you John. I must tell you that I just received their first design and they put the hole in the controller in the center of the flat pad. Perhaps they have limited knowledge of human anatomy.

      • You did send them a picture including the hand, right? Good grief. Who knew you would have to send an atatomically correct picture of a hand?
        Great work Mike.

  8. As always, you are such an inspiration to me. Thank you for sharing your brilliance.

  9. Thank you Mike for all that you do…

  10. Mike –

    Is there an update on their making another control with better ergonomics? If so how’s it working?


    • Unfortunately, after a couple of more tries they were unable to make the kind of device I wanted. Right now I am back to a regular joystick. However I also have a switch in the headrest that allows me to change from driving mode to Seat adjustment mode. That way I can take hold of the joystick safely and then change the mode to drive. It’s a bit of an awkward workaround but it gets the job done.

      • Oh, that’s terrible Mike. PM me at john(at)mcclun.com. Let’s see if there isn’t something we can make happen.


        • John, I believe the people I am working with did their best. It is a very challenging task to accommodate my pattern of weakness. And actually, I am progressing at such a fast pace these days that it might not make much sense to do anything that custom. In addition, I am fairly far down the road in getting the rest of the chair custom fitted and that includes getting the armrest height and angle just right, etc. Just the slightest change in any parameter can cause me to lose function.

          • OK Mike. I know you have very little mobility left and appreciate your wanting to make life in your chair as comfortable as possible. Having been a Biomedical Engineer for most of my working life I dealt with providing medical equipment to meet patients needs. I hope you find a comfortable setting for you arm rests etc. Talk later –


  11. I put the joystick between my index and middle finger. Control is more from the wrist rather from the fingers. Works for me.

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    • It’s much easier to understand when you put it that way!

    • That’s a smart answer to a difficult question.

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