SCI BC Peer Kevin Priebe believes there’s no fit like a custom-fit.
After years in special effects for the motion picture industry, Kevin Priebe has embarked on a new business, Society Wheelchairs, which offers a customized experience to anyone seeking the perfect fit. His own chair is an outstanding example of his work—with its massive wheel customization and titanium frame, it’s impossible to miss in a crowd.
So, when 6’2” Robert Smeltzer saw Priebe’s chair at an event, and was offered the opportunity to have his own ride customized, he jumped at the chance. Smeltzer is so tall, and his legs and arms are so long that he’d never been able to find a wheelchair that was high enough to be comfortable. “Kevin quickly assessed that my extra-large chair wasn’t even close to being a workable fit,” says Smeltzer. Even his latest chair, an aluminum Ti Lite with huge 26 inch wheels, forced him to bend radically at the waist in order to wheel.
"Not only is the entire ensemble now completely ergonomic, it’s as smooth-operating as is possibly imaginable..."
Priebe modified Smeltzer’s frame by adding six inches of welded strut material to the brackets underneath the chair, which determine the height. He also modified the front tubes that join the foot platform to the rest of the frame. To properly balance the entire build, he added larger castor wheels on the front.
“Not only is the entire ensemble now completely ergonomic,” says Smeltzer, “it’s as smooth-operating as is possibly imaginable, courtesy of artisan-calibre craftsmanship, and the use of only top-end bearings and other materials. It’s a pleasure to use.”
Clearly, this wasn’t Priebe’s first kick at the can when it comes to customizing a mobility device.
A fierce competitor in kayaking, canoeing and cross-country skiing – Priebe was unsatisfied with the equipment he was using, so he set out to build something better, using skills his father had taught him along with knowledge he’d acquired as a mechanical apprentice before his injury.
“I built my own seating, which led to a ski, and then my own chair,” says Priebe. He continued to work on similar projects for a growing number of his Peers, training and developing his skill, and acquiring more and more specialized equipment for his shop.
In 2018, he transformed his hobby into a viable business. With help from the Community Futures Entrepreneurs with Disabilities Program, Business Development Canada, WorkBC Assistive Technology Services and Neil Squire Society, Priebe turned his dream into a reality and Society Wheelchairs Limited was born.
He employs computer modelling, CAD and other technologies to arrive at designs that truly make a difference in peoples’ lives. “We are all about fit, form and finish,” says Priebe. “What that means is that our wheelchairs are an extension of who we are. Our goal is simply to improve quality of life through innovative wheelchair design.”
Priebe’s social business philosophy extends to finding qualified employees who, like him, have an SCI or other physical disability. It’s why he’s striving to make his shop and equipment universally accessible.
Building a socially-responsible business, being a trainer and employer, and getting the finished product to customers—it’s clearly a huge undertaking. But Priebe is already demonstrating he’s up to the challenge, and continually focuses on time and energy management.
“I would say that everything takes 30 percent more time and energy with the everyday struggles of living with SCI,” he says. “One key for me is simplifying and trusting the right people—I am so lucky to have this amazing network of people working with me. The other big one is to reduce barriers and make those things that are really difficult to do a lot easier. Everything from making a specialized welding table that tilts and rotates, to the simple things like getting hoses, wires and plugins off the floor, made easily accessible for work efficiency.”
We offered Priebe the final word.
“I’d like to give a shout out to my para athletes—swimmers, sprint kayakers, nordic racers, adaptive climbers, those participating in the new Para Boxing program. There have been so many people along the way that I have raced, trained and worked with, and they have all helped me get this business off the ground.”
We are all about fit, form and finish. What that means is that our wheelchairs are an extension of who we are.
One key for me is simplifying and trusting the right people—I am so lucky to have this amazing network of people working with me.
“Society Wheelchairs is an opportunity for me to take my talents to another level. I have always pushed myself to try different things and never just accept the status quo, and strive to improve things around me to make life better and more accessible for all of us.”
For more information or to contact Priebe, visit societywheelchairs.ca.
The full article is featured in the Winter 2019 issue of The Spin.
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