Among other things, multiple sclerosis can result in a loss of balance and severe weakness in the legs – not exactly traits that would improve someone’s volleyball game. As a dedicated player, however, Toronto’s Brian Light wasn’t about to let his own MS keep him from participating in the sport he loved. Instead, he designed and built his own hands-free wheeled support device, known as the Sports Walker. Not only did it extend the amount of time that he was able to continue playing in a standing position, but it also won him an international award.
“In 2001, I was 48 and an avid volleyball player,” Light told us. “I had been playing for 26 years. I loved chasing the ball. I played as often as I could and even made a beach court at my cottage. I figured to play into my seventies.”
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Unfortunately, after increasing leg numbness and balance problems, he was diagnosed with late onset, slow progressing Primary Progressive MS in November 2005. By June of the following year, it became obvious that he would not be able to continue playing volleyball ... at least, not in the usual way. After seeing children with MS using walkers to get around, he came up with the idea for the Sports Walker.
As can be seen above, Brian’s original full-scale prototype is quite the DIY contraption. Working with his brother Ted, he built it out of PVC pipe, metal rods, foam padding cut from yoga mats, and that favorite of inventors everywhere – duct tape.
The walker incorporates a harness worn around the user’s waist, which is supported by six legs that spread out and down to the floor. Each of those legs has a caster wheel on the bottom, allowing the whole apparatus to be rolled across the court via shuffling of the user’s feet – it’s not too unlike the way people sometimes scoot themselves around on wheeled office chairs. Best of all, because it doesn’t have to be grasped like a conventional walker, the user’s hands are free to serve and return volleyballs.
Although his MS has since progressed to the point that he has to play using a wheelchair, the device allowed him an extra four years of playing volleyball in an upright position. “I could not get on the court or perform at all otherwise,” he recalled. “To get in the walker and be able to walk, to run, to chase a ball. It was glorious.”
Last year, Brian entered the Sports Walker concept in Real MS: Your Innovation, a global design competition presented by Swiss pharmaceutical company Merck Serono. Over 100 entries were received, all of which detailed innovations for helping those with MS deal with the challenges presented by their condition. After a period of online voting by members of the MS community, he was declared the winner of the contest.
Part of his prize involved the chance to work with a team at international design firm IDEO, to create design sketches and a small-scale prototype of a possible production model of his walker. The results were released to the public late last month. Along with other improvements, the proposed new version of the walker has five legs (or in some versions, four) which telescope to fit the height of the user, and it folds up for storage and transport.
“The IDEO model prototype has some great ideas in it and it has me thinking,” said Brian. “It may be possible to get a new one made with help from friends like my brother. It needs thinking, planning and action and this MS thing is still coming at me. Even so, I intend to start asking around. If I can get a working, comfortable, portable, adjustable and easily transportable version built, anyone with leg or balance problems could use it to play, rehab and maybe even get through the day better.”