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Sam Asano's Let's Invent: A solution to enable people with walkers to use stairs

June 18. 2017 11:46PM
This drawing shows a proposed walker that would help the user climb and descend stairs. (Courtesy)

Two weeks ago, I received a reader request to investigate whether there are walkers developed for climbing up and down stairs. This lady stated that her mother is an aging-in-place person living alone in her own home, and strongly prefers it that way. She needs to regularly use a walker to help her balance.

Her house has a five-step entry staircase from the outside, and this is a serious obstacle for her mother to overcome. She cannot ascend or descend these stairs. The result is her mother cannot enjoy walking outside without ever calling her daughter to assist her. The daughter doesn’t live with her mom, so having to show up to the mother’s house every time mom wishes to walk outside puts a mild strain on the daughter.

This problem isn’t unique. Taking care of one’s aging parents used to be the unwritten rule for the younger generation in the old society. The rising living standards from 1850 to 1950, the golden years of U.S. manufacturing prosperity, enabled the young generation to live separately from their parents. As the old saying goes: “out of sight, out of mind.” By the physical separation of two generations, the cultural bonds thinned out.

Today, many sons and daughters feel burdened to take care of the parents living separately. So, this lady who wrote in looking for a walker that enables her mother to climb up and down a five-step staircase is a natural outcome.

I do not know just how many people depend on walkers, but the University of California Disability Statistics Center states that 7.1 million people use canes, crutches and walkers. These are representative of products made for advancing degrees of mobility impairment, but short of becoming totally dependent on a wheelchair.

From various statistics and descriptive documents available through Google, it seems some 1.5 million to 2 million walkers are used daily in America. Since almost all residences have stairs, short or long, the desire to climb up or down the stairs must be very prevalent among the walker users.

The question is, can you develop a walker that enables the user to climb up or down a stair? Well, if you ask Google “Stair climbing walker?” or similar questions, it returns with many items and experiments that are interesting, bizarre, expensive, dangerous to user and plain dumb. There are many videos associated with these “innovations.” Based on the number of attempts available from Google, I must conclude that the basic desire to use a walker to climb up stairs or down is intense and widespread.

This phenomenon must emanate from the fact that many walker users are not terribly impaired and believe they could climb if their balance can be held undisturbed. That is a tall order by itself. But all inventions are derived from a desire to solve problems.

The most important first step in an invention searching for the proper solution to a problem is to define the problem. Now, let’s understand what a walker is. It is a solution to counter impaired balance of people. A person whose balance is poor can stabilize balance by leaning on the walker. The singular and only purpose of a walker is to help the user stand up and not fall. Thus, the user could walk step by step forward if the ground is level.

We assume that the user has reasonable arm muscle strength to lift and/or manipulate the walker to change the direction of the walk. Now, let us assume that the user desires to climb up the stairs (or down the stairs) as many such users would wish. Remember the only purpose of a walker is to assist and secure balance of the user. That means the walker must continue to uphold the balance of the user while climbing up or down the stairs. That isn’t easy, but let’s try. Here is my idea.

If you Google, you will find a massive amount of data on stairways. The dimension diagram on the website indicates standard stairs will have a 7- to 8-inch riser and about an 11-inch tread (Fig 1). Since it is imperative that the new walker must fit within the tread, the length of the new walker must be less than 10 inches (Fig 2).

The proposed walker has three legs on the right and left sides. The idea comes from those animal species called hexapods — six legs (Fig 3). Each leg, when fully extended, is 32 inches. The bottom ends of the legs would rise and get shortened by up to 8 inches. Fig 4 shows the walker approaching the step of a stair. The first legs will be shortened by a motorized mechanism and enable the walker to advance onto the step riser.

Next the second leg would rise and accommodate the riser, and finally the third leg would rise to accommodate the riser. This completes placement of the walker on the next tread up. Now, a push of a button would make all six legs rise to the normal height.

Smart readers must have already noticed that my scheme has some serious flaws or needing some key additions. Your questions would include: How do you lift the support leg starting from the front pair and middle pair and the rear pair? Can you expect the same arrangement except in the reverse order when climbing down the stairs? The front pair needs to extend down to reach the lower tread. How does that work?

Do you think I got into serious trouble here by my scheme? Maybe.

To be continued ...

Shintaro “Sam” Asano of New Castle was named by MIT as one of the 10 most influential inventors of the 20th century. Write to him at

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