Wilkes Barre Times Leader DAWN ZERA Times Leader Correspondent, October 2, 2007

(Don Carey/ The Times Leader)

Wilkes-Barre resident Megan Yekel, currently living in a University of Scranton dorm, can dance, climb steps, play in the sand and look you in the eye from her full 5-feet 6-inches height. None of that is remarkable, except for the fact she does all this while in a wheelchair.

The key is that she is using the iBot. On the market since 2003, the iBot has been hailed as a revolutionary piece of equipment for people who rely on a wheelchair for mobility. Among other features, its gyroscope technology allows users to maintain an elevated position for long periods of time.

I think people don’t stare now because I look different, it is curiosity about the iBot. I’m stopped 10 times a day by people who have curiosity about how it works.

The independence the iBot offers is enviable for those who have used conventional wheelchairs. From a raised position, Yekel has a vantage point over a stove, can reach top shelves in supermarkets, dance cheek-to-cheek with a partner, and have a conversation without feeling diminutive. Friends and family can give her hugs without awkwardly bending over.

The iBot offers other advantages that conventional wheelchairs do not. Yekel can negotiate up to a 5-inch curb – helpful in cites where there are many corners without curb cutouts – and climb stairs with assistance.

It all adds up to an extra dose of confidence for a young woman who has used a wheelchair since age 9 because of Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a form of Muscular Dystrophy, and who is finding she is as independent as any other college freshman living away from home for the first time.

Yekel said that if people are staring at her it may not be because of her disability.

“I think people don’t stare now because I look different, it is curiosity about the iBot. I’m stopped 10 times a day by people who have curiosity about how it works. It’s a nice icebreaker, even for those who may feel uncomfortable with people with disabilities; people see it and say ‘Wow, that is so neat,’ ” Yekel said.

“Now, at eye level, I don’t know if hot guys are looking at me because of me or the chair,” she joked.

Megan is Rose and David Yekel’s only child, so the iBot has had a positive influence on the entire family. It was Rose Yekel who first realized the independence the iBot could give her daughter. After seeing a segment about it on NBC TV’s “Dateline,” Yekel called the company that manufactured the new equipment and arranged a test drive. The price tag for the iBot: $26,100.

After that, the van ride home to Wilkes-Barre was a memorable journey.

“As soon as I saw it, I decided I totally needed to have it,” Megan said.

During that ride home, the three Yekels talked excitedly about the possibilities of having such technology… if only they could get it.

“Then my husband said, ‘It’s not if. It’s when.’ Come hell or high water, you are going to get it,” Rose recalled.

That’s when, as Rose puts it, “Megan’s community” helped out. She told her teachers at Coughlin High School about the chair; she told her friends and family.

Fundraisers were held, and as a sophomore high school student, Megan got the iBot and a whole new world opened up for her.

“The money thing was an issue, on how to pay, but it was not an issue that we would not get the chair. It’s like a pair of legs. I would pay $3 million for a pair of legs. So basically how much would you pay to get your legs back, to get your freedom back?” Yekel said.

For Yekel, gone are the days when her dad had to do drive-bys of friends’ homes to determine how he was going to get his daughter in for a sleepover. Gone are the days when homes she frequently visited, like her grandparents’, kept bulky manual wheelchairs on hand. Gone are the more frequent times her father and boyfriend had to lift her out of a wheelchair and carry her.

This past summer, Yekel went on a cruise to Bermuda with her parents, a trip made easier with her new wheels. She was able to negotiate many of the buildings in Bermuda, despite there being no handicapped-accessibility laws in the country, and also cruised right onto the sand with the iBot. Sand-maneuverability also is a bonus in U.S. shore towns where sand wheelchairs (provided by most towns) are hard to snag.

A trip to New York City also was thrilling. Yekel moved right along with the crowd, almost as another city dweller might move about on a Segway: a feeling less claustrophobic and faster than a conventional wheelchair in which a person is surrounded by a wall of human backs.

For Megan’s parents, their daughter’s newfound freedoms have brought them joy and some peace of mind.

“My husband and I are very much at ease now. She summed it up once in an essay: With the iBot she does not feel she’s handicapped anymore,” Rose Yekel said. “A lot of people don’t see the wheelchair now. They see a young girl out there doing as she wants to do, dancing, moving in a crowd.”

The Yekels want to get the word out about the iBot, the way anyone who has come across a great product wants to alert others to the benefits of it.

“You know, Oprah has her favorite things that she wants to see people have. We want to see people have this,” Rose Yekel said.

Megan Yekel is pursuing a degree in elementary education, and she sees yet another advantage to the iBot in that profession.

“When I am a teacher, I will be able to write high on the chalkboard where the students can see, instead of down low,” Yekel said.