Tom Rapp sees the light

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Tom Rapp, a mobility specialist at Rochester, N.Y.-based Pro Rehab, has a patient named Angela to thank for his new company, WheelchairFx.

Angela, who uses a wheelchair, was hit by a truck last year crossing the street to get groceries, breaking her pelvis. Right after Christmas, when Angela was still in a rehab hospital, Rapp was at home taking down a string of lights and thinking about how to build her next wheelchair. That’s when the idea came to him.

“The next day at work, I wrapped a 10-foot string of lights around a power chair and darned if it didn’t look pretty good, not to mention safer,” Rapp said. “For days after that, I was up researching various lighting options until 2 a.m.”

Rapp settled on LED lights, because they would draw little if any power from a wheelchair’s battery. Then he spoke with electrical engineers to develop a circuit breaker that would maintain the safety of the wheelchair - its battery and controller - even if it were hit by lightning.

After overcoming those two obstacles, “things started snowballing from there,” Rapp said.

Rapp convinced Pro Rehab to offer wheelchair rentals at numerous festivals, and then he tricked them out with lighting systems, including 8-inch strips of lights on the armrests and a 3-inch box of lights shining down from the undercarriage. (“Those kind of make the chairs look like the cars from the Fast and Furious,” Rapp said).

“People were thrilled with them,” he said. “They were standing in line to get my card.”

Rapp also rode a wheelchair outfitted with lighting systems around the show floor of the HME Exposition & Conference in April. That’s where he came wheelchair-to-wheelchair with Kevin Williams, who was there with his mother, a physical therapist (See sidebar).

“They would be great for power soccer,” said Williams of the lighting systems.

Rapp now sells the patented lighting systems on his Web site, He hopes rehab providers will see the systems, whose installation he describes as “click and play,” as cash items to supplement their power wheelchair sales. Pro Rehab will be one of them.

“They have great marketing potential,” Rapp said. “Providers could light up chairs and put them in their storefront windows.”

But with patients like Angela and Kevin in mind, Rapp has no plans to stop with lighting systems. He’s also looking to develop louder horns, wheel spinners and iPod docks.

“I guess thinking of all of these ideas - it’s just how I’m wired,” Rapp said.