In 1989 I was living with Susan, my new wife, in Martinez, California. We were doing various things for work. We had the care of 21 mentally ill adults in a large home. And I was playing my piano compositions around the San Francisco area, looking for a steady gig. I had just landed a fill-in job at a French restaurant but it, and everything else, really didn’t feel right.
I don’t know if you believe in God but one particular day I said to Him, “You see everything. You see something out there in the world that needs to happen, something you know that I am uniquely qualified to get done. If you’ll put it in front of me, I’ll do it.” A few weeks later I got a call from my brother, Mike, who is the director of the Delano Association for the Developmentally Disabled. He told me about a teacher, Linda Bidabe, and a physical therapist, Jack Lollar, who had some interesting theories about learning to walk. He said they needed some devices created and that they presently were building absolute junk out of PVC pipe. Mike said, “I was thinking since you’re creative and have built an airplane and a boat that perhaps you might be of some help to them.”
So I went down to Bakersfield and had a chat with these people. Jack and Linda were just then creating what would become known as the MOVE program. They believed children with cerebral palsy could perhaps learn to stand and take steps. They needed certain tools to accomplish this. I asked them a million questions. They were overly optimistic about the laws of physics, but I liked what they had to say about all people being able to learn. They thought that their cerebral palsy students might be able to learn to walk if they could only get them on their feet. Conventional walkers were wholly inadequate and besides, most of the kids were too big to lift and it was killing their backs. I thanked them for their time and told them I’d think about it.
This reminded me of a friend of mine from years earlier, Archie Pulham. Archie had had a stroke and I met him when the guys in church were organizing to go and help him get out of his wheelchair to take a little walk. I went over once or twice a week and struggled to get Archie on his feet. My main job was to keep him from falling as he hobbled around. I don’t think I ever saw him take more than ten or twenty steps at a time. We’d walk out five or eight feet from his chair and then turn around. Well, you know what kind of shape you’d be in if you only walked ten feet once or twice a week. I watched him over several years slowly deteriorate and then die. The thing Archie left me, besides a lot of stories, was the knowledge of a problem. It didn’t yet occur to me that there are millions and millions of Archies in the world. But I knew with my body the difficulty of getting a man to stand and walk.
Jack and Linda were telling me another version of the same problem. From all they said I distilled several design criteria. One, people in wheel chairs might have a chance to learn to walk if they could get up to a standing posture both comfortably and safely. And two, such a device, in order to be used, would have to be simple, easy to apply, and save a lot of work including back breaking lifts. I thought about it for three weeks and the fourth week I built a very crude prototype. It didn’t work very well. It was clunky, awkward and uncomfortable, but the basic form was there. The second prototype actually worked quite well. You could take even a large person from their wheel chair and get them safely to their feet, without straining your back. The special ed school, named Blair Center, began to use it immediately. Then I began to get calls from other special ed teachers. They also wanted a “lift walker” and so my little invention business was born. I thought the LiftWalker was going to be a two month project, but after twenty years I’m still working on it (and ten other mobility inventions).