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Wheelchair lift out of Wis. promises more access

Carrie Antlfinger, Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- An elementary school has inspired the University of Wisconsin-Madison to create a new wheelchair lift that could help make more places wheelchair accessible nationwide.

The invention process started about three years ago when the principal at Emerson Elementary School in Madison, Karen Kepler, told a school donor on a tour that her biggest wish was to have her building accessible to everyone. All four entrances to the 93-year-old building had stairs.

It's something Kepler's thought about a lot since a family event her first year there.

"That night we — me and a custodian — carried a grandmother up the stairs so she could see the performance," she said. "So since then it stuck in my mind of a need we had in our school."

The donor went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for help. Professor Jay Martin, his students and others helped in devising what they call the Funicular. It's a platform that uses rollers and a modified chain hoist. It allows wheelchair users to move up the stairway by turning their wheels on the rollers.

"We wanted the lift to be as simple yet as elegant as we could make it so that it didn't eliminate use of the staircase, that it was of course safe," said Martin, who is also head of university's Center for Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology.

Some owners don't want to install a ramp because it would change the aesthetics of the building, particularly the historic ones. Others don't have enough space for a ramp or an elevator. Others simply cannot afford it.

Bruce Goeser, director of technical services at Global Precision, which provided custom parts to the project, said the first time he saw it he thought of numerous places he wanted to use it with his wheelchair.

"I know of some buildings on the national historic register that are not allowed to have a larger ramp in the front so I've been carried up and down stairs in those facilities," he said.

Martin said they've had interest from several companies to produce the lift, but it's still in the prototype phase.

"The Funicular itself will probably be, will be significantly less than any alternative because of its inherent simplicity," the professor said.

The school ended up fundraising, building an addition and installing an elevator, which they began using in February. Kepler said she doesn't have to turn any students away anymore, and her own mother who has knee problems can access the school easier.

She is proud they have inspired a solution for others.

"Warms my heart because it really started with a school tour and a very kind donor," Kepler said.