Etsumi Okigawa hopes to design as many wheelchairs as possible so their users can become everyday fixtures at schools, offices and street corners.

Okigawa is a researcher at Kanagawa Rehabilitation Center, a third-sector medical institution in Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture. The 43-year-old is one of Japan’s few wheelchair design specialists, a task requiring expertise in both mechanical engineering and medical care.

To date, Okigawa has designed some 2,000 wheelchairs, many of which feature special functions to suit the various needs of users, who range from those requiring intensive care to those wanting to zip about a basketball court.

“My work begins with face-to-face consultations with users and their caretakers,” Okigawa said. “Then I try to realize their requests on the drawing board, as along as they don’t say, ‘I want to fly in my wheelchair.’ “

But customizing wheelchairs remains a big challenge for many users.

“Most users have little knowledge about customization, and little information is available,” he said. “Also, it requires more money than ready-made products.”

Custom wheelchairs can be about 10 percent costlier than standard ones.

Okigawa pointed out that in Japan’s wheelchair market, standardized products are the mainstream, with only three basic types to choose from.

However, the Wheelchair and Positioning Aid Association, a group of wheelchair makers, estimates the market at some 800,000 people.

More than 20 years in wheelchair design began when Okigawa worked as a welfare volunteer while studying mechanical engineering at college.

“Efforts to pursue the two fields at the same time eventually brought me to wheelchair design,” he said.

Okigawa’s designs go beyond minor modifications to standard models. He has designed six-wheel chairs sold by Aichi-based Nissin Medical Industries Co. as well as wheelchairs that can lift users to a standing position and those for “off-road” use.

Some of these inventions, Okigawa said, are the result of his efforts to clear physical and cultural hurdles that are peculiar to Japan — narrow streets, small houses with many rooms and levels inside, not to mention tatami mats.

For example, Okigawa’s six-wheeler features four small auxiliary wheels, which drastically improve the capacity to make tight, quick turns and get over bumps.

“This type of wheelchair especially attracts the elderly and children, whose arms not so strong,” Okigawa explained.

In addition, the Japanese custom of living on tatami makes wheelchairs less a matter of comfort when seated, compared with wheelchairs made in the United States and Europe, where sitting on chairs is a way of life, he argues.

“It is my understanding that Japanese wheelchairs are excellent as vehicles but poor as chairs, because many users fold up their wheelchairs once inside the home,” he said. “In contrast, Western wheelchair makers devote much time and effort to improving comfort.”

But despite such different philosophies in design, Okigawa believes Japan is making steady progress in its efforts to make the country more barrier-free.

“Recently, it has become much easier for wheelchair users to visit public facilities, and more people now offer help without hesitation,” he said. “I believe the more wheelchair users that find the courage to go outside, the better the situation becomes.”

To help achieve this end, Okigawa has ambitious plans to design wheelchairs for “leisure” — running on sandy beaches and skiing down snowy hillsides — so that users can enjoy life just as others do.

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