A chair fit for dancing

For dancers with disabilities, traditional wheelchair designs can limit mobility and artistic expression. Science Friday brings us the story of a choreographer who was inspired to create a smart-power wheelchair enabling dancers to move in new direction.

TRANSCRIPT

For dancers with disabilities, traditional wheelchair designs can limit mobility and artistic expression.

'Science Friday' brings us the story of a choreographer who was inspired to create a smart power wheelchair, enabling dancers to move in new directions.

Let's take a look.

[ Piano music plays ]

There's something very freeing about, you know, basically having thoughts and ideas and human experiences that you can express through the physicality of your body.

Freedom of expression, creating new movement possibilities, you know, that's what we're always sort of exploring in dance.

My creativity has always blossomed when I begin to work with physical objects outside the body.

It's something about the relationship between the human person and the objects outside of that human body.

And especially working, obviously, with disability.

My name is Merry Lynn Morris, and I'm the assistant director of the dance program at the University of South Florida.

You know, there's a tendency with disability for folks to think of the tragedy or the challenge, and that's not where the emphasis should be, but to also recognize that there's a lot of innovative potential and there's a lot of opportunity.

From a personal experience, my dad had a disability, pretty severe disability.

He had a brain injury, and so that kind of brought me into this, more the world of disability.

And then that experience has been layered with my work in the art world.

In 2001, I started working with dancers with and without disabilities, integrated.

That's when I really started thinking of the wheelchair as a creative instrument because the individuals I was working with had a lot of upper-body mobility.

And yet they were using manual-wheelchair propulsion or they were using the joystick-controlled wheelchair.

So, it's been a long, kind of a long evolution.

Started with exploring seat adaptations on Segways.

Then later evolutions, as I worked with some other collaborators, moved into different places, and I began to sort of figure out for myself what the aesthetic of what I was trying to create was and why.

I wanted the emphasis to be on the person and their movement.

And, you know, a little different, a little unusual than, you know, you or I would typically identify as a wheelchair.

My chair is different in two particular ways.

One is the omni-directionality.

So the chair moves forward, backward, side, and diagonal directions, and rotates and turns.

The other thing is that the seat actually rotates independently from the base.

So that's helpful for accessibility if you're talking about daily living, but also from dance again, being able to actually spin the seat.

It does have height change, and that, again, allows the individual to be at eye level.

Or, in terms of dancing, it allows more change in the verticality.

The other significant difference is the actual control system.

So, rather than it just being a joystick that's attached to the chair, my control system is a mobile control.

So it's controlled through the smartphone.

And so it can be held by the person in the chair.

It can be worn by the person in the chair.

So, if you wear it, then when you lean forward, the chair moves forward.

If you lean back, the chair moves back.

If you lean to the side, the chair moves to the side.

If you rotate this way, the chair will rotate.

And the degree of movement -- you know, how far forward or how far back you lean or turn or twist -- is all dep-- can all be programmed.

The interesting thing, though, about this controller, which makes it just very different, as offering another kind of possibility, is that you can have someone that's not physically engaged, not actually touching, you know, the person, and they can yet be still controlling the chair through their movements, potentially, their own movements.

They can be dancing over here and controlling the movement of the person over here at a distance.

There's kind of empathy.

It shows an empathetic connection there.

And so, in some ways, that it kind of embodies this idea that even though we're apart, we're actually still really affecting each other.

You know, I'm in dance.

I'm a dancer.

And I'm a dance creator, you know.

So the chair -- I hope to use it in a dance context, but I also have always -- and I've had my eye on the pedestrian aspect, too, which is the sort of daily life aspect as well.

So, in the manual chair, you know, you can't really talk to someone who's behind you.

So, in the case of my chair, we're not necessarily, for instance, having people behind the chair pushing.

You know, if people want to hold hands or connect physically a little bit with their bodies, you know, you can connect hand to hand and simply walk together.

So the chair, therefore, is sort of a blend of the sort of aesthetic creative and this kind of more functional -- it's the sort of daily life aspect as well.

I think that if it's more conducive for people to come together to physically connect, and if it encourages that in some way, and certainly to dance together, that, yeah, it heightens emotional connectivity.

That's very exciting.

I mean, I get very... That's very joyful.