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IKAN? 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, of course.

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 Millers'.

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 2003.

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 January 2005.

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! Wow!"

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