BELFAST, Maine — The Afari mobility device used by a Belfast man who suffered a traumatic brain injury is the product of two University of Maine professors with a mission.
For them, the Afari is not academic. It’s personal. That’s because Stephen Gilson and Elizabeth DePoy not only teach disability studies — they are both persons with disabilities. And when Gilson convinced DePoy in 2008 that she should do a triathlon, she was game but ran into a major problem during training. She realized her “terrible balance” would prevent her from moving from her treadmill to the streets because she would be falling over.
“We looked around for a device, and we could only find stigmatized, ugly devices,” DePoy said. “Stephen’s background is in art. I said, ‘Let’s invent something that looks good and that functions, too.’”
Between the two of them and Vince Cacesse, a friend who is a professor of mechanical engineering at the university, they came up with a prototype for the Afari. A combination of details make it special, they said. The three-wheeled device allows users to stand up straight — not hunched over — as they walk or run with the balance and stability support they need. It has brakes and active steering, and just as they had intended, its functionality is matched by its sleek, contemporary appearance.
It even was selected in 2017 to be part of the “Access + Ability” exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City.
“There’s the Afari Mobility Aid which, when in use, just looks as if you’re walking your bike instead of riding it,” the New York Times wrote in an article about the exhibit.
That kind of response is just what DePoy and Gilson were hoping for.
“We wanted a design that would be functional, that somebody would be proud to use in public,” Gilson said.
Many mobility devices do not have that goal. Things such as walkers, wheeled walkers and canes help people get around, but they often have another effect, the couple said.
“People are stooped over. You feel sorry for them. They look debilitated,” DePoy said. “My dad, who is 93, uses a wheeled walker. He doesn’t want to go out in it. It’s embarrassing. Whereas, if you see the Afari, people walk over and say, ‘Wow, isn’t that cool.’ You stand up straight. You look them in the eye. It’s functional — you can go anywhere.”
The mobility device, which has been through seven design cycles, is now the flagship product for Mobility Tech in Brunswick, a new company that started as a partnership with the University of Maine. Its CEO, Ryan Beaumont, said Mobility Tech is now in “growth mode” and has so far sold 30 Afari devices to customers in New England, and even as far away as England and Hawaii. The cost for the devices starts at $1,875 and although at the moment, insurance companies see it as an exercise product and therefore not covered under policies, he hopes that will change.
“We’ve got people with brain tumors that are running again,” he said, adding that the best part of his job is hearing stories from customers like Seekins. “I honestly didn’t expect the overwhelming positive response. Now people can go outside their homes without being afraid of falling. It’s more than physical health. The social aspect is amazing, too.”
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