What I Wish I'd Known About Wheelchair Design: Architect/Designer Michael Graves

A world-famous designer on what his own paralysis taught him about pain and wheelchair design

One of the first things Michael Graves learned when he was paralyzed at the age of 68, in 2003, was that not all paralysis, or the pain that accompanies it, is the same. 'It's different for everyone, so it's very hard to plan for a device or even a therapy that will help everyone,' says a man famous for creating devices -- from his smart household items for Target to his whimsical teakettle with a whistling bird for Alessi.

"It took me a while to realize that even if someone was paralyzed one vertebra lower than I was, they could do a whole lot more than me. Or one vertebra higher, and they could do even less."

That means that pain hits everyone differently too. Things that most people take for granted -- like the "saddle," or bump on the floor where two rooms come together -- can be roadblocks for those confined to wheelchairs. Graves, who is also a renowned architect, initially gravitated toward an attractive wheelchair by the Italian company Prego. "I didn't know that there are enormous differences in wheelchairs," he says. "Even going over a saddle was very painful for me in the first years. Bumps, whether speed bumps or holes in the street, were excruciating in that chair because it didn't really have the suspension that I needed. I didn't even want to go out because the pain was so bad."

Graves is now designing his own line of more functional -- and fun -- medical equipment. It includes a cane that folds into a purse-sized bag, a showerhead that can be held in the palm of the hand for those with dexterity problems, and a sturdier and more attractive shower chair. His Moist Therapy heating pad draws moisture from the air to transmit heat more efficiently to the body.

The best thing caregivers can do for parents who are newly paralyzed or disabled is to help them be proactive about what they need, says Graves. "The therapist who was supposedly in my camp in the hospital didn't ask me the right questions. So you really have to take it on yourself, because they may ask the guy before you and the guy after you, but they may not ask you what you think you need."

Read the full interview with Michael Graves.

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