Weightlifting from a Wheelchair

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Why don’t you see more people with disabilities at the gym? One key reason is that the equipment is largely inaccessible to them. Steve Ferreira knows this all too well. A fitness fanatic and winner of multiple para-athletics awards, he also happens to have been born with cerebral palsy. The condition makes it hard for him to move and speak, so he gets around the world in a high-tech motorized wheelchair. 

Ferreira has a powerful upper body and likes to work out, but the barriers to doing so at the gym can be nearly insurmountable. He doesn’t let that stop him, and he doesn’t want it to stop others, either. An advocate for people with disabilities who has 50,000 followers on TikTok, he runs a nonprofit, called Beyond Disabilties, that provides various kinds of support to those who want to overcome any disability-related limitations they might face. He is currently working with five senior undergraduate students — Joseph Byun, Janna Crocker, Cannon Crow, James Freda, and Carlos Rivera — in the UC Santa Barbara Mechanical Engineering Department on a capstone project to adapt a standard pulley-and-cable weight machine to be accessible to anyone. The project will be presented along with 25 others at the 2023 Engineering Capstone Expo, to be held at Campbell Hall on Friday, June 9. 

The team focused on three features that made a standard cable exercise system unusable for wheel-chair users, especially those who have hand-dexterity issues: weight stacks are too low to access while in a wheelchair; selecting a weight might be impossible for a person having  limited dexterity; and the height adjustment of the pulley is too cumbersome to adjust and may be out of reach. The team on the project — called BDS (Beyond Disability Systems) Functional Trainer, sponsored by Beyond Disabilities and supported by UCSB associate teaching professor, undergraduate mechanical engineering vice-chair, and capstone course instructor, Tyler Susko — has been working with Ferreira on a design change that will address all three problems, making the weight stack reside at an easily accessible height, guiding weight selection, and integrating a remote-control keypad to move the pulley up and down electronically.   

“We’re taking a couple of features that people with disabilities, and specifically, those in wheelchairs, might have trouble with,” says Susko, who earned his PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote his dissertation on rehabilitation robotics, and every year includes two capstone projects related to serving those with disabilities among the seventeen total projects. “We met with Steve to try to figure out the different things that he and others in wheelchairs might have trouble with.”

Ferreira’s take on fitness — and on everything — is that he is essentially no different from anyone else. “My wants and needs are like those of other people,” he says. “It may take me a little longer to do things, and I may need things to be adapted, but it’s important that people with disabilities have the same experiences as other people.”

In coming up with capstone projects, which he does every year after spending the summer pitching companies and other organizations to sponsor them, Susko has to make sure that the projects are appropriate for students and the time and resources they have. “If you’re going to design something that is mass-marketed, like a car, which has been refined over a hundred years, it’s really hard to find a point of entry unless you’re a huge company,” he says. “But the disability space is relatively small and there are not many people thinking about it, so it’s easy to find something to do. People with disabilities all have unique challenges, unique problems that haven’t been addressed, and the solutions are usually simple. It’s much easier to find a point of entry for students.” 

Students take away numerous valuable skills and lessons from the experience, especially in terms of things not necessarily going according to plan. “I think the most important thing I've learned through this project is that design is a process,” says Janna Crocker, who will work as a spacecraft systems engineer at the Santa Barbara satellite startup Umbra Space after graduating and had ownership of the software and electrical components and the technical writing for the capstone project. “It's easy to get into the mindset of thinking a solution will work because it sounds perfect, but most of the engineering happens in the debugging phase, when a theoretically perfect solution needs a little more work. Preparing for this and being able to keep working toward solutions instead of getting frustrated by design changes and debugging are incredibly important engineering skills that I'll definitely take with me after I graduate.”

The project was highly open-ended to start, Crocker says. “Our goal initially was very broad: to make working out more accessible for Steve. That was a great starting point to brainstorm from and gave us a lot of space to think of different parts of working out that we could make more accessible. It’s a huge problem, with so many different specific issues we could have tackled. We ended up narrowing our scope to focus on one machine Steve frequently uses.”

While Ferreira and others with disabilities face daily challenges in the form of simple things, such as doors that lack automatic openers and even single steps without a wheelchair ramp, they also encounter less-visible barriers, what might be called attitudinal obstacles. “Society tends to focus on what people with disabilities cannot do, rather than our accomplishments,” he says, then adds, “It just gives me more motivation to accomplish my goals.”

Fortunately, he notes, “There are people who share my vision, and these are the people who are developing tools for people with disabilities.” He counts Susko and the capstone students among them. “There is a lot more work that needs to be done, but this has been a great project.”  

In May, Ferreira came to UCSB and met the team in the recently renovated mechanical engineering machine shop, where students work on their capstone projects. After trying out the then-unfinished adaptive weight machine, he described it as “a great start to the project that, with some additional research and development, should be a great product,” adding, “It was good to finally meet all of the team and to see the machine in person rather than on the computer screen. My hope is that this project creates awareness for the fitness needs of people with disabilities, and I envision gyms incorporating similar workout equipment in the near future.”

As for Susko, he says that the adaptable weight machine “has startup written all over it” and that, while none of the students on the team plan to pursue that path, he sees it as a multiyear project and hopes that future students might take the technology in that direction. “We’ll see if we can get someone interested enough, maybe a commercial fitness equipment producer, so that it eventually becomes a thing in gyms.”

An image of capstone client Steve Ferreira, capstone course instructor Tyler Susko the team: James Freda, Carlos Rivera, Janna Crocker, Joseph Byun, and Cannon Crow.

Capstone project client Steve Ferreira (center) with (from right): Tyler Susko and team members James Freda, Carlos Rivera, Janna Crocker, Joseph Byun, and Cannon Crow. Photograph by Lilli McKinney