Online Extra: Leveling the Field in the Weight Room

Ten weeks of role-playing led to a design to help the wheelchair-bound at the gym. That design earned the IDEA Best in Show award

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Several years ago, during a routine workout at a local gym in Cincinnati, Ryan Eder had an "Aha!" moment. A self-described fitness enthusiast, Eder, then 20, noticed a paraplegic struggling with some exercise equipment. Because the machine was not wheelchair-accessible—an issue affecting equipment in 94% of U.S. public gyms today—the man had to use a homemade accessory to reach its handle.

But where most might see an inconvenience, Eder, who was studying industrial design at the University of Cincinnati, saw opportunity. He envisioned a machine catering to wheelchair-bound and able-bodied users alike—an idea that just landed him the coveted Best in Show prize at this year's International Design Excellence Awards.

"I remember thinking, 'There could be a huge market for a product like this,'" Eder recalls. "I knew, as a designer, I had to do something." In 2006, as part of his senior thesis, he began crafting a proposal for a machine he dubbed the "Access." After talking to his faculty mentor, assistant professor Dale Murray, Eder resolved that achieving a practical design for the physically disabled would require firsthand experience.


  So, for 10 weeks, the full-time student became a part-time paraplegic. He rented a wheelchair and tried exercising with limited dexterity. He talked to Paralympics coaches about effective weight training. He even joined a wheelchair sports league to "play football with the guys." "I really wanted to be immersed in their world," he explains. "Understanding their struggle, their issues—that's the only way I could be successful."

In the end, Eder's dedication spawned a groundbreaking concept: a machine that could "equalize" the workout room and make it accessible for those of varying physical abilities. The Access has two arms that oscillate 180 degrees to accommodate various user heights. Hitting small one-touch buttons changes the weight resistance, reducing the need for manual dexterity. And each leg of the machine houses two retractable hooks that can lock onto any part of a wheelchair in order to stabilize it.

With a virtually unlimited number of customizable exercise options, including triceps extensions, chest presses, and abdominal crunches, the Access could be a top-notch rehabilitation tool, says William McKinley, director of Spinal Cord Injury Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University Hospital in Richmond, Va. Beyond the obvious health perks—like greater strength and diabetes prevention—physical activity "can increase a patient's general well-being," especially after a spinal injury.


  Such logic applies to able-bodied users as well. Exercise is good for anybody, says McKinley, and the machine's easy-to-use features (one-touch buttons, oscillating arms) could entice a more casual lifter. "It's convenient, and cuts down on time," he explains. "That's all some of us need." But Eder has loftier goals.

In most public gyms, he says, there's a long-standing bias against paraplegics and partial quadriplegics, who are thus forced to exercise elsewhere. By loading the Access with accessible, efficient features, Eder has created a proposal that's universally attractive. "Wheelchair users just want to be treated like everyone else," he says. Socially and physically, the Access "puts them on an equal platform."

And the IDEA judges took note. Though many students have submitted high-caliber entries—this year alone, 15 colleges picked up awards—Eder was the first student ever to score the Best in Show prize. Most of the time, student work displays "a certain level of naiveté," says one of this year's judges, Gavin Ivester, senior vice-president and general manager of international footwear at PUMA (PUMG ). "People think it's enough to have great inspiration," he explains. "It's not. You also need great follow-through."


  What's striking about Eder's work, says Ivester, is its "stunning" combination of big-picture thinking and real-world viability. Eder analyzed every detail of the machine's construction, from its market potential to its nuts-and-bolts construction, and his final product could, potentially, revolutionize the public gym. "This should send a message to the professional design community," Ivester says. "Wake up, guys, you've been shown up by a student."

As for Eder, he has now graduated from college and is working full-time at Priority Designs, a Columbus (Ohio) industrial design firm, where he helps create everything from bath fixtures to medical equipment. He's currently waiting for a patent for the Access. But once his Best in Show and Gold Award win draws more buzz, he plans to pursue investors more actively. "I'm just hoping to find someone who appreciates the cause," Eder says.

He's already earned one vote of confidence. Though Ivester, who has worked with Apple (AAPL ) and Nike (NKE ), emphasizes that commercializing any concept always involves hurdles, he firmly believes Eder's concept can succeed. "From an engineering perspective—and I know a thing or two about engineering—the Access looks totally viable," he says.

For an in-depth look at the Access and its features, see BusinessWeek's slide show. Check out the other winners of this year's International Design Excellence Awards.

By Dan Macsai

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