Jean Minkel '80

 

Outside the Box

%333%left%Ever seen a wheelchair with an inner ear? Jean Minkel '80 has. As the technical consultant behind the most innovative wheelchair technology to date, Minkel has helped to create a more accessible world for wheelchair riders.

Minkel arrived at Colby knowing she wanted to study biology and physical therapy, but she never knew those interests would eventually put her on the cutting edge of technology that allows people to lead fuller lives.

Case in point: as head of Minkel Consulting, Inc., Minkel played a major role in the evolution of the wheelchair, a device that, until recently, "hasn't changed in a hundred years."

With her help (and that of a lot of other people), the wheelchair has come a long way from two wheels and a seat. Approved by the FDA just this August is the iBOT, a wheelchair that can climb stairs and travel any other terrain the way an SUV can. Developer Dean Kamen, the inventor of the iBOT (and the Segway), worked with Minkel on this important project: a "mobility system"that operates with the balancing function of a human inner ear. "If you lean forward, the wheels move underneath you, if you lean back, the wheels roll back behind you, replicating what the inner ear does, but now doing it in a seated position," she said.

As a Colby senior, Minkel did an independent project that foreshadowed what she does now. Volunteering at the United Cerebal Palsy Center in Augusta, she worked with a young client and ended up using both her physical therapy knowledge and her mechanical inclination to help him: "One of the things I enjoyed most was modifying a bicycle so that he could ride it himself, having no idea that's where eventually I would end up."

%332%right%After Colby, Minkel got her master's degree in physical therapy at Stanford, then headed back to the East Coast to work as a pediatric physical therapist in Boston and New York. With 21 children on her caseload, and all but one in wheelchairs, she quickly realized just how important the wheelchair was to physical therapy programs.

Minkel's next step in the field was her involvement with the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America, or RESNA, a group of people interested in technology and helping people with disabilities. She then moved to a New York hospital where she worked on wheelchair design and connected disabled people with the right equipment. It was at a RESNA conference, however, where Minkel's career took the largest turn. After giving a presentation, she was recruited by Dean Kamen's company to do clinical consulting for projects like the iBOT, and she's been working with this new-wave technology ever since.

So what does the future hold next for the wheelchair? To see that, we have to look at the world the way Minkel does-from the perspective of someone who can't walk. She sees a ramp in front of a building with no elevator inside. Or a wheelchair rendered useless when faced with a curb or an expanse of grass. Wheelchairs with gyro balancing technology and projects like the iBOT will change the terrain for the disabled.

The best way to do that: bring wheelchair riders in on the process, as she did with the iBOT. "That was a pretty neat project for me, because the developers were wide open, thinking brand new, outside the box," Minkel said. "So I got to bring people with disabilities in on the design phase so that they could influence the design to make it work, not just to be neat technology but to be technology that really worked for them." ,Anne Marie Sears '03