A wheelchair is a seat with wheels; it is a mode of transport used by a person who can't walk. A manual wheelchair typically has its seat at the height of an ordinary chair seat; it has two small-diameter wheels attached to the front axle, and two large-diameter wheels (attached to the rear axle) which the seated person moves to power and steer the chair. Manual wheelchairs can also be pushed by another person from behind.

There are electric wheelchairs, which move under battery power, for people who can't (or choose not to) power themselves in a manual chair. Dean Kamen's celebrated I-BOT promises to be the first wheelchair that can climb stairs and perform other feats of agility out of the reach of traditional wheelchairs.

The first wheelchair was made for Phillip II of Spain in the 1600s. The first wheelchair patent was registered with the U.S. Patent Office in 1869. Folding wheelchairs were introduced in 1909, but they were not manufactured in any great numbers. In the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt had his wheelchairs jury-rigged from actual chairs.

The advent of the familiar modern wheelchair occurred in 1932 when engineer Harry Jennings built the first folding tubular steel wheelchair for his friend Herbert Everest. Everest & Jennings went into business together, and their company so dominated the U.S. market that in 1976 the Justice Department brought an anti-trust suit against them. They settled out of court.

After World War II, wheelchair sports began to gain in popularity. Since the 1940s, there have been high-level wheelchair athletics programs; basketball and racing are probably the best-established but today there are also hockey, rugby, fencing, billiards, football, bowling, tennis, curling, sailing, skiing, volleyball and more.

The need of athletes for high-performance wheelchairs drove innovation; the big old clunky hospital-style chairs would not remain the only option for long. In 1979 Marilyn Hamilton, Jim Okamoto, and Don Helman produced a mass-market lightweight folding wheelchair called the "Quickie"; its design and its sexier name revolutionized manual wheelchair manufacturing and marketing. In 1984, George Murray became the first wheelchair athlete to be featured on the Wheaties cereal box.

Politics: the fight for access
One problem with wheelchairs was: wheelchairs can't go up stairs, over curbs, etc. Beginning in the 1960s, people began to see this not as a problem with wheelchairs, but as a problem with the way buildings are designed. In the US, grassroots pressure mounted on the federal government to enact standards for architectural accessibility -- wheelchair ramps, curb cuts, etc. The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 was the first major success of this movement. The passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was a second huge victory. These early breakthroughs were followed over the next 20 years by piecemeal legislation, culminating in the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which guaranteed that people with disabilities could not be excluded from public schools, public transportation, polling places, air travel, employment and finally any place of public accommodation.

Historical information from www.fta.dot.gov.

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