Clever Bugger

Autumn 2011 #13

Most of my stable of wheelchairs, all known by the colourful name Bugger, have been modified out in the shed before they first set wheel inside the house. But when B4 finally arrived it was immediately evident that there was a great deal of work to be done! Bugger Mark IV is actually the property of our local health service (a fact I sometimes forget, perhaps because we paid a fair slice of the cost…) given to me on permanent loan.  In order to take possession of this wonderful vehicle an official ‘letter of loan’ had to be signed, and hidden within the fine print were these enticing words….

“…shall refrain from making inappropriate use of,
or modification to, items supplied.”

Well, what could I do?  There were any number of highly appropriate modifications just begging to be made!  In my travels I’ve not seen another chair with much done to it, and from the comments of health workers I gather B4 may be fairly unique. The basic out-of-the-box wheelchair is a pretty inflexible and often uncomfortable contraption.  I’ve often thought that some simple additions could make a world of difference to other wheelchair users; and so this essay is a step towards sharing some ideas that might be useful to someone, somewhere.

Without further ado, may I introduce you to my great friend…

Arm Rests
The chair arrived brand new  with short, narrow arm rests that provided very little support.  A longer, contoured arm rest was available from the supplier, but the cost was absurd – like so much else in the world of disability equipment.  These arms are made from $20 worth of Tasmanian Oak from Bunnings.  They are of slightly different lengths, so that the user’s arms are in matching position while operating the controls.  The arm rest is long enough to support the user’s hand right up to the control unit. At the back are two small rails that support the driver’s elbow, and at the front a small rail underneath the arm provides good grip.  Without exageration, these armrests changed my world.

Glove Box
It’s impossible to get to your pockets when you drive a car, and a wheel chair is no different.  In the glove box I keep my phone, keys, a pen, small tools, a telescopic mirror, voice cards and various special things that my Little One deems suitable!  Recessed into the lid is a fob watch, essential if you don’t want to miss the bus!

Roll-Up Table
The most useful thing!  I’ve seen an occasional wheelchair with a table, but they are large and ungainly, and there is nowhere to store them onboard.  A table is so handy when travelling, or outdoors, or even indoors, and especially when using a computer.  This table is made from timber slats strung together with elasticized cord; it sits in a slot in the right hand armrest, and under the lid of the glove box on the left.  It rolls up, and is stored in a 60mm PVC pipe under the seat.

Useful Stick
Stored in another PVC pipe, this stick is useful for everything that is slightly out of reach.  I use it a dozen times daily for power points, self-closing doors, and even for driving the chair itself when it is parked too far away.

Voice Amplifier
Voice amplifiers are usually supplied with belt clips and neck straps; cumbersome ways of managing the device.  This voice amplifier sits in a recess in the right hand arm.  The volume control is always at the user’s fingertips, and because the loud speaker faces away from the microphone the volume can be turned up considerably without feedback. I now use the amplifier with a netbook computer to produce synthesised speech. The netbook’s carry bag can be seen hanging beneath the armrest, and is easily accessible from the chair.

Pick-Up Stick
A collapsible pick-up stick can be stored in a length of PVC pipe, and is always on hand at the front of the chair.  In wet weather this is also a good place to stow the umbrella once undercover or on a bus.  Althougth the pick-up stick looks exposed to damage in this position, I have found that it has lasted perfectly well throughout a year of constant use.

Walking Sticks & Umbrella
Never leave home without them!  A squash ball keeps sticks secure in a length of PVC pipe and prevents them rattling.  A spring-loaded, automatically opening umbrella is a great asset.  Mounting the PVC pipes at a single point on the bar behind the seat allows them to pivot when the chair is tilted backwards.

Seat Belt
A ‘racing harness’ style belt is made from 50mm webbing and plastic buckles that loop onto the chair’s lap-sash belt.  Adding this has provided much more stability, greatly increasing my range and reducing fatigue while driving.

12 Volt Power
I ordered the chair with two 12 volt power outlets, useful for charging phone or computer.  A 12 volt charger on the other side of the chair keeps AAA batteries charged and ready for lamps and for the amplifier.  A timber guard protects the wiring from weather or accidental fingers.

Head and Tail Lamps
Lamps are essential for travelling after dark, and are useful indoors as well.  You can’t exactly ‘feel your way’ down a dark hallway in a power chair!  Bicycle lamps are an affordable alternative to purpose built wheelchair lights.


I feel sure that I would not have achieved nearly as much in the last twelve months without these straightforward improvements.  Of course, not everyone has the opportunity to tinker with timber and screws in the shed; and I’m grateful to have grown up in the home of a carpenter, where there were tools aplenty and every encouragement to learn to build.  I’d love to think something here might be of use.



PS… if you recieved the email version of this post the pictures may not have been beamed to you.  It might be a complete mess!  Who knows? Find it online at

8 thoughts on “Clever Bugger

  1. Hi Rod,

    It’s Brendan from TADNSW. I’ve been following your blog since we met at the Albury bike clinic and I just wanted to thank you for sharing your insight and humour. You’re a brilliant writter and your blog never fails to touch me and also make me think. Great mods as well!


  2. val lodge

    Hi Rod I take my hat off to you for your ingenuity. You shouldpatent your inventions. I wprk and have worked fultime with people with disabilities and its always the OT who says what you need and measures it anf 9 outy of 10 times it is so wrong. The workers or people like yourself are the ones who know what is really needed. Bless you. Val Lodge

  3. Hello Brendan, I remember meeting you well. Thank you very much for your compliments! I have a TADNSW project in mind now, it’s a bit of a way off yet but it’s a goody! Keep in touch,

  4. Well thanks Val! I must say I just feel so fortunate to have the ability and resources to do all this; and I feel very much for people who must be stuck in difficult situations, wishing a few little things could be made simpler for them. Nice to hear from you.

  5. Kathleen Powell

    You are a very clever man Roderick and I’m sure many people would love to have some of these innovations. Thanks Kathleen

  6. Mal Codling

    Hi there Rod,
    I wish I had found, discovered, opened or realized the was somebody out there that can bring their Powerchair Modifications ideas to reality.
    I have the use of only a very unstable left hand but am able to think up rough designs for ‘stuff’. In the past TADVIC were the creators of my ‘brilliant ideas’! Their work was cut out for them & I wore out several Volunteers getting the ideas to fruition!
    The main reason I’m writing is the 12 volt, two outlet with charger. TADVIC constructed a coupling device that plugged into the recharge point, then to a re-wired car cigarette USB charger, that I plug my GPS; ridiculous I know, or any other gadget I require the use of ‘on the run’!
    I will have to ask TADVIC to adapt you ideas for Slat Table, Arm Rests & your Glove Box but for left hand use . I hope they take up the challenge & they can discuss, with you, mass production!!

    Thank You.

  7. Hello Mal,
    I was thrilled to read your reply, thank you for writing. One of the things that bugs me is that I feel unhelpful to the world around me most of the time; its so much harder to contribute these days. I’d love to think that any of my ideas would be a help to someone else. Mal, just a word about the 12 volt system: there is a trap if you run anything that draws more than a couple of amps, maybe even less. I don’t know much at all about electronics, so I’d say check this our with someone qualified, however when I ran the breathing machine from 12volts drawn from one battery it created a difference in charge held in the two batteries under the chair, resulting in the charging system failing to charge either battery, ie the chair broke down one day. The batteries had to be replaced, although the technician thought that they might charge seperatley with a trickle charger. What you have to do is draw 24 volts from both batteries wired in series. This has been working without any problem for a long while now.

    Great to meet you, I’d love to hear how things go for you.

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