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Student group sees mixed results for rising wheelchair on Australia trial

Masataka Yano, right, accompanied by a member of the student group, orders from a bar counter while sitting in the Pegasus raising wheelchair in Sydney, Australia, on March 18, 2019. (Photo provided by professor Noriko Fukushima's seminar at Kyushu International University)

KITAKYUSHU -- A group of students at Kyushu International University encountered success and failure on a trial run of their wheelchair with a seat that can be raised and lowered electronically, enabling its user to enjoy trips abroad at the same eye level as companions without disabilities on a trip to Australia in March 2019.

The four third-year students behind the project are members of a seminar run by professor Noriko Fukushima, a specialist in tourism studies and a member of the faculty of modern business studies. It came about after a former seminar student developed the "Pegasus" wheelchair for use at a wedding.

The four male students devised "Pegasus Voyage," an initiative to help wheelchair users and those without disabilities travel together sharing the same eye level. Professor Fukushima says it is the first scheme of its kind in Japan.

With cooperation from Nishitetsu Travel Co. based in the Fukuoka Prefecture capital of Fukuoka, southwestern Japan, the trial run took place from March 14, 2019, on a trip totaling seven days with four nights in Australia. Masataka Yano, 31, of Kinko in southern Kagoshima Prefecture was chosen from a recruitment drive to test the chair and join them. Together the group toured Sydney, with the students helping Yano to get around without impediment.

The Pegasus raising wheelchair used in the trial trip to Australia is seen at Kyushu International University in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture, on Jan. 7, 2019. (Mainichi/Hiroya Miyagi)

Yano experienced activities such as admiring exhibits at art museums and ordering from the counter at bars at a similar eye level to the four students via the Pegasus seat, which can be elevated by up to around 80 centimeters. He said it gave him a sense of unity in that he could enjoy the atmosphere as much as others did.

However, the group also encountered difficulties while taking in Sydney's sightseeing spots. The Pegasus, which is originally designed for indoor use, had insufficient driving force for outdoor excursions, leaving it unusable for more than half the day and making improvements to its outdoor specifications essential. The four students, who all carry caregiver certification, had to solve some shortcomings through manpower alone. At a zoo, they supported Yano from both sides to ensure he got the perfect photo with a koala as a memento of his time in Australia.

To help get around, they also used a supportive tool called "Jinriki," with which one can pull the wheelchair like a rickshaw, enabling Yano to enjoy shopping and pottering about the town too.

Haatsu Eto, 20, a member of the group, said, "Next time I want us to be better at being mindful and reducing causes for anxiety, by calling out in detail about what obstacles or steps lie in the way." Yano, who uses a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, said, "There were worrying moments where I wasn't sure what to do facing unexpected points, but they helped me by discussing the issues in detail. The tools for this trial are important, but more than anything the most significant part was the people involved," showing gratitude to the student group.

The group's leader Ryota Tokunaga, 20, is looking toward the project's next progression, "There were accidents, but I think if we can overcome issues we can definitely make it into a consumer product."

(Japanese original by Hiroya Miyagi, Kyushu News Department)

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