TAMPA — For more than eight years, Michael Foradori's world was limited to the places he could go on his motorized wheelchair. That world was mostly paved. And it included few of the Mississippi forests where he has spent countless hours hunting and fishing. On Monday, all that changed.
Foradori, 23, became the first customer to buy and cruise around in a Mobili T Rover, a rolling wheelchair platform designed to take him off-road, over uneven ground, through mud and across creeks.
"I'm going to head off through the woods, and they're going to have to find me about four hours later," Foradori said as he powered the rover across a grassy field at the University of South Florida.
The rover was designed and built at Rehab Ideas, a company that USF spun off to license and market inventions designed by engineering students and faculty members.
The rover looks a bit like a dune buggy, with a roll bar and large rugged tires, and is designed to work with any self-powered wheelchair.
The motorized wheelchair is strapped into place on top of the rover's frame. Each of the wheelchair's wheels spins a pair of rollers mounted in the frame. Those rollers, in turn, drive a series of sprockets attached to chains that turn the rover's knobby tires.
The rover was created by USF engineering students assigned to design something that would help someone with a disability.
Travis Watkins, a student in the class, first developed the rover several years ago for his father, Jim Watkins, who lost his ability to run, golf and sail because of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
After hearing from one of the people who now helps Foradori with his daily tasks, Rehab Ideas elaborated and improved on that prototype.
Rehab Ideas now is producing 10 of the rovers, which sell for $7,495, and has gotten inquiries from as far as Virginia, Iowa, Nebraska and Nevada.
In addition, Rehab Ideas executives said the rover could give beach resorts a chance to cater to guests with disabilities.
But on Monday, as company executives and engineers watched Foradori tool around with tears in their eyes, the commercial applications of the rover almost seemed beside the point.
"Selling a product is actually very inconsequential," said Dana Roeling, chief operating officer of Rehab Ideas. "Giving a person their independence back; you just can't put words on that."
Foradori, who lives in Booneville, Miss., has been paralyzed since age 15. He said he got in an argument with an employee of a Captain D's restaurant in Tupelo, Miss., in December 2000, and they took the dispute outside to the parking lot. There, another employee pushed Foradori off a 5-foot ledge, according to court records. He landed on his head, crushing the bones in his neck.
Foradori sued Captain D's in federal court and won a jury verdict of more than $20.8 million, court records show.
Since his injury, physical therapy and technology have helped Foradori get out of a nursing home and regain a degree of independence. He has even learned to hunt using a rifle mounted on his wheelchair. He aims and fires it with a set of automated controls that he operates with his mouth.
But the rover will give him the chance to get back in the woods.
Later this year, he is moving to a new home on 42 acres. Foradori — who has sky-blue eyes, a crewcut and a soft Southern accent — said he looks forward to exploring the property.
"There's a creek back off on my land that I haven't been able to see," he said. "I want to see where that creek goes. Maybe build me a little party cabin back there."