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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Tanner Jensen, 3, drives his new wheelchair that BYU’s Engineering Capstone program has developed as his parents, Esther and Justin Jensen, and brother, Skyler, watch, Thursday, April 2, 2015, in Provo. The chair is the world's lightest, least expensive motorized wheelchair, made from PVC pipe.
I'm hoping this will turn into sort of a movement. I’m hoping this will help out not just the Jensen family, but thousands of other families that don’t have access to affordable wheelchairs. That's the vision. —Tim Gunsay

PROVO — As the parents of two toddlers diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, Justin and Esther Jensen have spent their fair share of time discussing wheelchairs.

“I mean, there are chairs out there,” Esther Jensen said doubtfully. “They’re just really big and heavy.”

“And expensive,” her husband added.

Tanner, 3, and Skyler, 20 months, suffer from a degenerative condition that makes it nearly impossible to walk or even crawl, necessitating near-total wheelchair reliance.

Though operating a manual wheelchair is incredibly demanding physically for the Jensen children, neither their car nor their split-level home can accommodate a 300-pound motorized chair. This incompatibility voids their insurance coverage, leaving the Jensen family with a potential bill of up to $10,000 per chair.

“Power chairs haven’t even been a possibility,” Esther Jensen said.

But after Brigham Young University’s annual engineering Capstone project presentations on Thursday, that may have changed.

A team of five fifth-year engineering students presented the Jensen family with what they believe is both the world’s lightest and least-expensive motorized wheelchair. The result of a year’s worth of research and development, the chair represents the culmination of a five-year engineering degree for the students who worked on it, all of whom will graduate this spring.

As stated by faculty coach Mark Colton, Team 33’s vision was “a lightweight, super-affordable, do-it-yourself wheelchair that anyone can put together.”

The final product, designed to hold children up to 50 pounds, is built from PVC pipe and controlled by joystick. Using parts available online and in hardware stores, the engineering students produced a chair that can be replicated for less than $500.

Students have struggled with the project since September, Colton said, overcoming many technical hurdles before Thursday's unveiling.

"This is one of those great projects because it’s a combination of fun, interesting technical challenges, but one that also has a clear benefit to society," Colton said. "It’s super satisfying."

The students of Team 33, too, took deep personal satisfaction in the capstone project. Design engineer Daniel McRae said the effort took on extra significance for him as both his wife's brother and cousin use wheelchairs.

"I had seen and applied to other projects, but as soon as I saw this one, I knew I wanted to be involved," McRae said.

He said he was gratified by the impact his project could have on the lives of the Jensen children, as well as others.

"I’m hoping this will turn into sort of a movement," said Tim Gunsay, who sponsored the project through his company, Vegetronics. "I’m hoping this will help out not just the Jensen family, but thousands of other families that don’t have access to affordable wheelchairs. That's the vision."

Email: [email protected], Twitter: allisonoctober