March 1, 2011
A Norwegian firm’s rigorously engineered mobility aids are designed to excite and empower disabled children.
You’ve seen the pictograms: the wheelchair has become the universal symbol of disability. But not for the founders of Krabat, a Norwegian industrial-design firm that makes high-end mobility aids for kids with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, spina bifida, and other disorders. Since 2006, Krabat has fashioned devices that embody freedom, movement, and excitement. Even the product names have a hint of boyhood swagger: the Sheriff, the Jockey, the Pilot, the Pirate. Eschewing the overly technical, clinical appearance of ordinary health-care equipment, Krabat combines meticulous engineering, carefully thought-out function, and pared-down good looks.
Take its newest product, the lightweight titanium Pirate, a flotation device and swimming aid. Part lunar lander, part lily pad, the Pirate puts inflatable water wings to shame. It gives a child the opportunity to be independent in the water while also helping to strengthen neck and back muscles. And the Pirate accommodates secondary users—friends, caregivers, loved ones—with intuitive ease of use.
Engineers by training, Tom-Arne Solhaug and Fredrik Brodtkorb run Krabat with two in-house physical and occupational therapists and an industrial designer. Solhaug and Brodtkorb launched the company a few years after Solhaug’s son, Kasper, was born with cerebral palsy. When
he encountered the first technical aid his son would need, a malfunctioning wheelchair that “looked like something from the Cold War,” Solhaug realized that the equipment on the market was either woefully inadequate or nonexistent. “I think all parents of handicapped children go through some kind of grief,” he says. “Doing practical things like designing a technical aid helps me a lot in the grief process and makes it easier to see possibilities rather than problems.”
In four years, Krabat has released four products. The Red Dot award–winning Jockey active chair uses a saddlelike seating position that is better for children than the passive, slumped posture many wheelchairs foster. (The Jockey has already been added to the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, a rare distinction for a piece of health-care equipment.) The Sheriff, a more traditional-looking wheelchair, also employs a saddle seat, this one perched between a pair of thin, lightweight wheels that look like those found in racing wheelchairs. And the Pilot is a dynamic sling that allows children to draw their knees beneath them in preparation for crawling. It is height and weight adjustable and comes with friction knee pads, as a pair of in-line skates might.
The philosophy behind the products is simple: ugly technical devices cause embarrassment, while a pleasing, functional design increases usage, progress, and independence, helping children to take pride in being different. “The word pride is important to us,” Solhaug says. “The device has to stimulate the child like a toy. It might not sound like good business to design products which the child hopefully will not need after awhile, but we are not interested in making products for the storage of children.”
Of course, Krabat also does not face the same business pressures that many industrial-design firms do. The Norwegian health-care system, unlike its American counterpart, pays for the costly equipment and then lends it to those in need, sometimes permanently. (American consumers can purchase the Jockey only through Snug Seat: