Helping the disabled dance

Florida dance teacher invents the hands-free rolling dance chair


TAMPA, Fla. – Brianna Blanchard has spina bifida. She's been confined to a wheelchair most of her life. Today, she's testing out a new kind of chair that could take her places she's never been before.

"It's emotional. Some of the movement, Brianna has never experienced," said Brianna's  mother, Melba Biagi.

"With this you can just do like body movement and hand movement. Your hands are free," said Brianna.

The 13-year-old wants to be a dancer.

"I would use it every day if I could," she said.

University of South Florida dance instructor Merry Lynn Morris invented the hands-free rolling dance chair. She came up with the idea ten years ago while caring for her disabled dad.

"That experience definitely informed my understanding and awareness of disability issues," Morris said.

Lots of twists and turns along the way, but Morris kept at it because of people like Blanchard. But now the patent-pending omni-directional chair is on center stage. A smartphone application controls the movement; Brianna has it strapped to her waist. The app takes cues from her movements.

And it's a lot different than a motorized chair especially because it has height control.

"Even just, just being able to have that person rise in the space and be at eye level with other individuals is so wonderful in terms of human communication," Morris said.

1.6 million Americans use a wheelchair on a daily basis.  Now, Morris' invention may give them more mobility than ever before.  She was selected for the Smithsonian Insitute's National Innovation Expo. Morris is working with companies in Florida and California and  hopes to sell the chair to the public for less than $5,000.

Additional Information:

Wheelchairs are now some of the most advanced medical devices we have at our disposal. But early the earliest wheelchair wasn't quite so advanced. Here's a brief history of the development of the wheelchair.

  • Although not documented, it's believed the first wheelchairs were probably used around 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. Certainly the first wheelbarrows, used in China during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, were used to transport the disabled around.
  • The first image seen of what we would call a wheelchair comes from the year 525 in China. But it would be thousands of years before we have another recorded instance of a wheelchair. The chair, belonging to King Phillip II of Spain, was used specifically for the purposes of disabled mobility.
  • In 1655, Steven Farfler, a disabled watchmaker, created a self-propelling wheelchair using a 3 wheeled chassis.
  • In 1783, the "Bath" chair was created by John Dawson. It had two large rear wheels and one small front wheel, and was steered using a handle.  The chair outsold every other kind of chair throughout the 19th century.
  • 1869 saw the patent of what would be the modern wheelchair, with two wheels on each side and the ability to be self-propelled.
  • The first motorized chair was invented in England in 1916, although many still used the manual chairs. This was followed by the folding wheelchair, which debuted in 1932.
  • Chairs today have a variety of new features, including the ability to raise and lower themselves, and some even have the ability to speak for you. (Source: http://www.rollaramp.co.uk/news/a-brief-history-of-the-wheelchair/)