You Bet You Can!
What do you do? You get up during
the night to use the bathroom and trip over
some exercise equipment and you can't get up.
It's morning before your roommates find you.
When you get to the hospital, you can still
move your arms. When you leave the hospital
three months later, you can't breathe without
a ventilator and your heart is kept beating
by a pacemaker. What do you do? You go bowling,
Bill Miller took that fall two
days shy of what would have been the start of
his fourth year in college. After he returned
home, barely able to move his head and unable
to move anything else, Miller's mother, Lake
County (Florida) judge Donna Miller, tried to
come up with things he could do. He became a
movie reviewer for a local paper and he set
up his personal website, but he had been athletic
in school and even board games were a problem.
"When we tried to play Monopoly he couldn't
sit up enough to see the table. We had to put
Velcro on the board and hang it from the wall.”
The judge hit on the idea of
“driveway bowling." Bill had enjoyed
bowling before the accident, after all. She
balanced a basketball on a large plastic soda
cup at the top of her inclined driveway and
set up plastic soap bottles at the bottom. Moving
his chair by sipping and puffing on a straw-like
control device, Bill would start the ball rolling
by knocking it off the "tee" with
his wheelchair. Neighborhood kids would compete
against him using a spare wheelchair of the
Eventually Bill progressed far
enough to be drive n to a local bowling center.
But even with a device resembling a locomotive
cowcatcher mounted on his chair to give the
ball more momentum, it stopped about halfway
down the lane.
"I started talking to all
the people I could think to talk to who could
manufacture something that would be attached
to the wheelchair that would already have the
slant of the driveway built in," the judge
says. "One of my volunteers in the courtroom
was a retired engineer. He said [he] could do
that. I introduced him to Bill”
The younger Miller and Claude
Giguere, a former electrical engineer who worked
in plant construction for General Motors, hit
it off right away. Taking the measurements of
Bill's wheelchair, Giguere returned to his home
workshop and built a ramp that could be attached
to the chair.
He had to design it three times.
The third version was sufficient to get the
ball going 4-1/2 to 6 mph.
Giguere happened to have a friend
in the area who retired the same day as he from
the same GM department. The friend thought
his son might be interested in the device, so
Giguere drove down to show him. Vince Tifer
was a highly successful businessman in the plastics
industry who had had to retire when he was diagnosed
with multiple sclerosis.
"You did that for Bill?"
an incredulous Tifer said when he saw the device.
"My God, we have hundreds of thousands
of people in wheelchairs that could use that!"
It was Tifer who suggested the formation of
MGT (for Miller, Giguere, Tifer), the company
that today manufactures the device.
For the next six months, Bill
and Giguere tested prototypes by night at a
nearby bowling center. Patent applications were
being prepared and it was best to keep things
quiet. The center manager would close at 11
p.m. and re-open at 11:30 for testing until
2, even 3 a.m. The prototype phase ended with
the production of the first units in September
During 2004, the device, now dubbed
the IKAN Bowler® for the Greek 'ikanos,' meaning
enabled, was demonstrated at VA and spinal cord
injury hospitals. Tha t spring, MGT applied
to USBC for certification of the device in order
to create a sanctioned league. Cleared by USBC's
Specifications and Certification Department,
the device passed to ABC, WIBC and YABA for
a rule -amendment vote that would permit the
Bowler to be used in league competition. It
passed all three, with an effective date of
Unlike other bowling ramps, "the
individual has complete control over the ball,
the movement, the speed, release, and direction
of the ball. No smoke, no mirrors. There is
no person to help them other than the caddy
who has to lift the ball up and position it
on top of the ramp,” notes David Watkins,
executive director of the IKAN Sports Foundation.
The Foundation, which is sponsored by MGT, was
approved for 501c(3) status last March.
"The Foundation has exclusive
rights to distribute the Bowler," Watkins
explains. “The purpose is to raise funds
and donate the Bowlers to VA hospitals and spinal
cord injury hospitals, to start getting these
people back in the game of life. We're also
selling them. As the VAs and spinal cord injury
facilities get these people introduced to the
Bowler, when they leave the facility they're
looking at purchasing their own”
The Foundation has joined BPAA,
based on the business the Bowler can bring to
bowling centers. For every bowler who comes
to play, there will be a caregiver, perhaps
another person to act as caddy, and they usually
bring family members to watch them play, Watkins
says. "If you had 10 bowlers, you'd ha
ve at least 50 people” The Foundation's
mission: to build the sport of barrier-free
bowling. It will be a large, long-term project.
More than 300,000 Americans are diagnosed with
the high-level spinal cord injury or cerebral
palsy, muscular dystrophy or similar catastrophic
disease that fits the profile of patients who
can benefit from the IKAN Bowler®. Another 10,000
are added to the rolls every year.
Meanwhile, the USBC-approved Barrier-Free
League is up and rolling. The Foundation has
a handshake agreement with the American Wheelchair
Bowling Association to take on the administration
of the league. Charter members: the Quad Squad,
seven bowlers, including Bill Miller.
"I know that some people
in wheelchairs simply don't get out much and
when they do, there's not much they can do,"
Miller posted on his website. "But it's
truly remarkable that I-a person who is completely
paralyzed from the neck down and dependent on
a machine to breathe-can bowl in a true sporting
fashion and actively compete in a physical sport!