Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

“Can Do” – Brad Soden’s Amazing Tank Chair

Can Do. That “can do” attitude about overcoming challenges helped make American great. We like to see ourselves as a people eager to innovate and determined to solve problems. How much the “can do” philosophy defines the American character today may be open for debate. But I’d like to share with you the story of one man who just wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. His name is Brad Soden, a former veteran, fireman and plumber, who found an innovative way to give disabled vets and others the means to regain an active, engaged life.

When people loose the use of their legs they also loose something the rest of us take for granted – the ability to get from here to there without even thinking about it. Wheelchairs help, but they’re designed for smooth, friendly surfaces – floors, sidewalks and streets.  If you have a yen to strike out across a grassy field, move along a dirt path or visit a sandy beach you’re flat out of luck. Until Brad Soden found a way, there was no way. You were stuck on smooth.

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Liz and Brad Soden from the Tank Chair website

Brad had a very personal motivation – a car accident left his wife Liz wheelchair bound. The Sodens were outdoors people, loved hiking and camping. But after the accident, that all changed. Liz couldn’t just glide her wheelchair down a woodsy path. A bond that united their family was fractured. Brad was determined to do something about it, to find a way to give Liz the kind of mobility she had before the accident that damaged her spine.

Photograph by Benjamin Rasmussen for Bloomberg Businessweek2

Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen for Bloomberg Businessweek

He was used to working with his hands, but creating a device that Liz could use to navigate rough terrain was an almost insurmountable task. Without any formal training as an engineer or even a college degree, Brad’s efforts failed again and again.

The first challenge was the motor. He tried gasoline and diesel. No go. Then he switched to electric. Moving on a smooth surface is one thing – but as soon as the wheelchair left the road it would get stuck. To navigate a field, or difficult terrain, you’d need oversized tires – but any motor that could fit on a wheelchair was too puny to power the tires. Wires would melt, motors burn up. Brad’s off-road electric wheelchair had hit a dead end.

Bloomberg Businessweek‘s Joshua Green continues the story:

Engineers Soden consulted advised him to give up. “They kept saying, ‘According to the laws of physics, what you’re trying to do will not work,’ ” he says, laughing. “Well, according to the law of physics, bumblebees and helicopters aren’t supposed to fly, but somehow they get off the ground.”

Brad refused to quit.

The breakthrough came one day in the garage with Liz’s dad, Barry. “We were just sitting out there,” Soden says, “and he says to me, ‘Man, you know what’d be cool? If we could put tracks on it, like a tank.’ ” Soden felt as if he’d been hit by lightning. “That’s when I knew exactly what it was going to be,” he says. “It made so much sense.”

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photo from the Tank Chair website

He still needed to solve some technical problems. He reached out to some robotic experts and, with their advice, he found a way to make it work. He calls his invention “Tank Chair.”

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Tank Chairs from the tankchair.com website

Joshua Green writes:

To most people, the chair is a stunning piece of equipment. But to Soden it represents something much bigger and more important—an assault on the idea that a physical handicap, no matter how severe, should constrain a person’s ability to live the life he wishes to.

Photograph by Benjamin Rasmussen for Bloomberg Businessweek

Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen for Bloomberg Businessweek

Tankchair LLC is a family affair run out of a small industrial garage in North Phoenix. Although Tankchair is a business, the enterprise has the feel of a cause. Every chair is customized to the unique and demanding needs of the client, and behind every one is a story.

Here’s a terrific video from Bloomberg TV that tells the Tank Chair story.

Since hooking up with the Independence Fund, Tankchair has focused almost exclusively on veterans, whom Soden often visits to take measurements and learn about their hobbies and passions. He also tries to deliver the chairs himself when he can, because there’s nothing like seeing someone do something he had never imagined being able to do again—playing on a football field with his son, going hunting, mowing the lawn.

Here’s a link to Joshua Green’s story about Brad Soden and the Tank Chair and a link to the Tank Chair site.

I find the Tank Chair story very inspiring. It’s just amazing what one person can accomplish when they put their mind to it. Brad’s determination not to quit, his belief that if he kept trying he’d find a way to make it work, was key to overcoming the roadblocks. Equally important was being able to see solutions where others see problems. When Brad’s father-in-law said “put tracks on it, like a tank” it made all the difference.

“Can do” isn’t simple, it takes grit, a firm belief in the importance of what you’re trying to accomplish and a determination to keep going. But that’s what innovation is all about.

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1 Comment

  1. Jill Yescalis

    Hi Danny – what a heartening story! Thanks for getting it out there. And I sure wish I hadn’t had to work the evening of your gig.

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