Episode 063 -- Stroke Survivor Designs Off Road Wheelchair

The wild requires that we learn the terrain, nod to all the plants and animals and birds, ford the streams and cross the ridges, and tell a good story when we get back home. 

-- Gary Snyder



A few weeks ago, we heard from Carol-Ann Nelson from Destination Rehab about the PT work she does in Bend, OR, helping folks with disabilities from around the world spend a week doing rehab and enjoying all the beauty that Central Oregon in the northwest United States has to offer. You can check out http://strokecast.com/destinationrehab to learn more about a Rehab Vacation or listen to that episode.

After we finished, Carol-Ann told me about Geoff Babb, a fellow Bend, OR, resident who had his own project.

Geoff Babb is a 2-time stroke survivor who loves the outdoors. After he got back to Bend following his work on Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, he had a brainstem stroke. After that first stroke, he discovered standard wheel chairs are not compatible with hiking trails. They're barely compatible with city sidewalks. So he decided to invent his own and thus, the AdvenChair project was born.


Geoff Babb sitting in the AdvenChair 2.0 along side a stream in Central Oregon



Timing is one of the amazing things about the story.

Geoff had been helping out in the New Orleans area in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It was right after he got back to his home in Oregon that he had his stroke. Had it happened while he was still in New Orleans, his recovery would likely have been much more challenging, considering how strained the infrastructure was at the time.

This actually raises another interesting point for discussion in the future. As folks survive uninjured from natural disasters like Katrina or Maria, they are still susceptible to the same medical challenges folks in the rest of the country face -- stroke, heart attack, car crashes, etc.

How does the limited or over-stretched post-disaster infrastructure impact their recovery? And if someone dies from a stroke due to limited availability of care a week or month after a disaster do they get counted among the disaster's victims? This opens up all sorts of questions of equality, social justice, and simple fairness.

The first AdvenChair failed early in a hike instead of later. The timing was also fortuitous, avoiding an expensive, time consuming, and risky rescue.

And finally, Geoff's second stroke was 12 years to the day of his first one. It's amazing how those timing things all come together.

Developing the AdvenChair

Geoff has a lot more details on the process of designing this chair on his website, and I'd encourage you to check it out (and contribute if you can).

There are a few things in particular that come up in the conversation.

Geoff and his team ultimately had to start from scratch with the concept, rather than modifying an existing chair.

I know very little about the history of wheel chairs, but it seems to me, they were first built as a chair that could then move, rather than as a method of transportation that could then allow a person with disabilities to be seated.

Looking back at the historical wheelchairs we see on TV and period movies, they're almost dollies for moving a person, almost as though the person is a type of cargo. It seems they evolved from there.

That sort of approach impacts your goals when you design something and also offers some insight into how designers viewed people with disabilities and the people who assist them at the time.

I should reiterate that this is my analysis, not Geoff's.

Geoff and his team started pulling together ideas that aren't based in the dining room chair metaphor.

They looked first at vehicles already optimized for off road use -- skis for wheelchair users and mountain bikes for ableds. Then they grew the plan from there.

Instead of focusing on pushing the chair, the looked at Pulk Sleds used by arctic explorers and other folks to develop a method for pulling it.

And they made sure it could be self-propelled and work in environments already friendly to traditional wheelchairs.


Geoff Babb HeadshotGeoff Babb’s first of two strokes abruptly pushed him into the world of disability. Today Geoff is the AdvenChairman of the Onward Project, which seeks to inspire, encourage, and enable people of all abilities to have active outdoor adventures.

Geoff is active in the disabled and adaptive community in Central Oregon. He is currently on the board of Oregon Adaptive Sports and the Advisory Council of Stroke Awareness Oregon. Previously, he served on the board of Healing Reigns Therapeutic Riding Center and the City of Bend Accessibility Advisory Committee. Through these experiences, Geoff has an in-depth understanding of the outdoor adventure opportunities available for people with mobility challenges, be it by horse, ski, or wheels. There are many possible ways for stroke survivors to be outdoors.

Before his first stroke, he was an active outdoor enthusiast who enjoyed mountain biking, skiing, and hiking with his wife and twin sons, and he enjoyed a long career in wildland fire management.

Geoff’s life has been an odyssey and three significant life events have emerged as important opportunities:

  1. Surviving his first brain-stem stroke in 2005. This changed his relationship to the world in general and the natural world in particular. No longer was he able to work, hike, bike, ski, and enjoy the outdoors as he had before. So, with help from friends and family, he developed a modified wheelchair that allowed him to go places where he could still have a meaningful connection with nature.
  2. In 2016, he and his team attempted to go to the bottom of the Grand Canyon when his wheelchair broke an axle. While they didn’t achieve their goal, this experience inspired an opportunity to design a better chair, one more durable for off-road travel.
  3. Twelve years to the day from the first stroke, in 2017 Geoff survived a second brain-stem stroke. This one helped him focus his energy to complete what is now the AdvenChair.

Because of these opportunities, Geoff’s dream is to help people experience the outdoors and wild places using the AdvenChair, rolling boldly where no chair has gone before.

Hack of the Week

Geoff recommends a cellphone that works with a stylus. Phones optimized for this technology have options that go beyond just using a generic stylus. They include special software and native support for digital ink.

The Samsung Galaxy Note product line is one fantastic option. I use an LG Stylo 4, which is less expensive but slower and older.

The advantage of a stylus is that you can get more precise control when writing emails and messages. You can also send messages in handwriting or draw pictures and do lots of cool things. If you have the strength to hold the phone with one hand while tapping with another this is great.

Now as I think about it, if I was left handed, I might use my stylus more. My current phone challenge is that I have to use it entirely in my right hand, and I have trouble reaching the left side of the screen with my thumb, resulting in more typos. My left hand isn't strong enough to hold my phone yet, but it might be strong enough to hold a stylus.

So I guess one of my next projects ought to be figuring out if I can teach myself to write or tap on a phone screen with my affected hand. It's my non-dominant hand so this would have been tough before the stroke, but now I get to deal with proprioception challenges, tone, spasticity, and weakness.

Sounds like a good therapy goal to me.

Thanks for the idea, Geoff!



AdvenChair Website


AdvenChair on Facebook


AdvenChair on Twitter


Oregon Adaptive Sports


Destination Rehab


Carol-Ann Nelson on Strokecast


Pulk Sled on Wikipedia



Where do we go from here?

  • Check out Geoff's story in more detail and learn more about Advenchair 2.0 at the links above.
  • Subscribe to Strokecast for free in your favorite podcast app so you never miss an episode.
  • Don't get best…get better.


Strokecast is the stroke podcast where a Gen X stroke survivor explores rehab, recovery, the frontiers of neuroscience and one-handed banana peeling by helping stroke survivors, caregivers, medical providers and stroke industry affiliates connect and share their stories.

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