A sophomore in college, Erik Kondo played lacrosse and football, was a member of the hiking club and was majoring in physics and maths. He was loving life – until a motorcycle accident sent him reeling.
“I was very fortunate in this case…I didn’t have to get rods or anything. I didn’t really have any other secondary complication…I was in pretty good shape.”
In pretty good shape that is, except for being paralysed and needing to use a wheelchair. That was 30 years ago in the 1980s, when rehabilitation was a very different space to what it is now.
”There certainly wasn’t a lot of information. The rehab that I went to, there was only one other person there with a spinal cord injury… they were relatively unfamiliar with how to deal with spinal cord injury.Erik KondoWheelchair Boarding Pioneer
During that time rehabilitation for a spinal cord injury usually took about six months. But Erik has always been goal driven, and he had one focus: get out of hospital as soon as possible. He knew if he took too long he would miss his second semester of university and if this was the case, that would mean waiting until the following September before enrolling again. He couldn’t have that.
In five weeks he was out, back with his life and friends, barely stopping for a second to dwell on the accident that had just changed his life.
There was one thing though that he felt he was missing out on as a wheelchair user. And that was balanced based skill activities, like skateboarding.
“I was fortunate that 25 years ago, I got a two wheel hand cycle… I’ve been able to ride and balance… and because of that I’ve always enjoyed the feeling of balancing.”
But the only balance based activities he could think of were skiing and cycling. It wasn’t until about four years ago, when he saw another person in a wheelchair on a regular longboard that he felt inspired.
So he began experimenting. He added a motor to the board, because without one, he was pretty limited, and from there it just kept growing.
“I just kept thinking, well what’s the next thing I can do?”
From skateboards, to snowboards, to longboards, and now finally his latest idea – an adaptable hoverboard, which he entered into the Toyota Mobility Unlimited Challenge. Erik received the discovery award for his idea and received some funds to help him develop it more.
“I created it as part of this Toyota mobility contest I entered in recently. But what it is, is sort of the outgrowth of my interest in personal mobility.”
Today he’s helping to change the lives of other people living with spinal cord injuries, with his new venture, Red Pill Innovations.
As a T4/T5 paraplegic, Erik has very little core muscles – but finds he can maintain his balance on his adaptable boards.
“The minute I use my hands for anything other than support, I lose my ability to functionally
balance. So one of the things that I found with the wheelchair boarding stuff is because
I’m always holding on to the wheels, and that’s my form of balance.”
For Erik, variability is important. The great thing about his skateboard is that he can hop on it and whizz around, up and down his own driveway. But his longboard is a different matter. It can reach speeds of 20 miles an hour, so Erik usually takes it out on the bike path near his home, where his kids can cycle along with him. He also designed a landboard, for more off-road terrains and trails. Highly functional devices, with only one big challenge: mounting them.
“I’ve made it pretty unstable to increase the manoeuvrability of it… it’s like jumping a curb that’s multiple inches high, except for the fact the curb moves.”
The best part about the boards is changing up the direction of movement from always going forward to going sideways.
“And going sideways creates a completely different feeling of mobility. I totally transformed the wheelchair experience from feeling like a wheelchair to feeling like something completely different. Because when you’re in a wheelchair and you lean backwards, you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna fall over.’ But when you’re on a skateboard when you lean backwards, you turn now, huh? Which is just amazing.”
While Erik doesn’t make and sell these products, he encourages people to check out his Facebook page ‘Wheelchair Boarding’ and his website https://www.redpillinnovations.com, where he uploads videos and photos of things he’s working on. The beauty of these boards is there’s no real complex technology involved.
“And that’s what’s so cool about it. So for $100, you can make some very simple brackets out of metal, you can screw them onto your longboard. This is actually one of the few sports that you can get into for a very small amount of money. When you consider what everything else costs, an off-road bike costs $10,000 so I’m talking literally hundreds of dollars here.”
While Erik didn’t make the finals of the Toyota contest, he is just glad he had the opportunity to prove a point.
“Look, you can use existing products that that already exist for able bodied people, modify them relatively cheaply, and, and be able to do something. So instead of having, you know, to spend thousands of thousands of dollars, maybe you can spend hundreds of dollars.”
All in all he believes there’s a big disconnect between what engineers and designers of mobility products think wheelchair users want, and what they actually want.
”I think what happens is, is that you can talk to any designer and engineer and they give lip service to this idea of talking to the end user. So they all recognize it's important, but they don't really take it to that next level.Erik KondoWheelchair Boarding Pioneer
Every now and again Erik gets emails from different design organisations who want to make a wheelchair that can climb staircases. But for a device like this you’ve got to be realistic.
“What they don’t ask is, how much more weight are you willing to carry always for those opportunities to climb stairs? And that’s a different question.”
The amount of weight a person in a wheelchair would have to carry around constantly in order to be able to climb stair is substantial, but the designers never think to ask that question.
“So people come up with crazy contraptions designed to climb stairs that nobody will ever use, because they’re not taking in the totality of the issue.”
His number one advice for other people in wheelchairs is to experiment and find out what works for them, because there is no one master resource that applies to everyone’s needs. Most of all he calls for people to keep pushing boundaries.
“We’re trying to push boundaries, push the limits of what is possible, and we’re not saying that everybody is going to do that, or everybody wants to do it, but you have to push the boundaries, because otherwise, there is no innovation. And it’s the cutting level of innovation that makes that creates the opportunity for everyone else.”
You can follow Erik’s blog for more information and inspiration!
If you’d rather listen than read…
Listen to the Podcast with Erik Kondo now.