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Award-winning wheelchair being trialled at St John’s

St John’s is currently trialling an award-winning all-terrain wheelchair, with the aim of offering it to students with disabilities.

A new all-weather and all-terrain wheelchair is being tested at St John’s to help disabled students manoeuvre around the College’s  historic buildings.

The WHILL wheelchair, from the Silicon Valley in San Francisco and manufactured by Japanese car industry experts, is currently being trialled at St John’s, and other Colleges are also being invited to give it a test drive. This motorised Personal Electric Vehicle (EV) is well-suited for dealing with the cobbles, courts and flagstones of a 16th century environment.

Over the last 18 months, the Domestic Bursar Mark Wells, in collaboration with the Development Office and three benefactors who are willing to fund the cost of the wheelchairs, has been looking into different chairs to help improve accessibility around St John’s for disabled students. Mark came across the WHILL powered wheelchair, an all-terrain Personal EV which appeared to cover the necessary requirements, with good terrain coverage and manoeuvrability. Eric Cooper from TGA Mobility, the UK distribution company for WHILL, brought the wheelchair into the College this week to explain how it functions.

The all-terrain and all-weather WHILL motorised wheelchairs have Omni-wheels rather than conventional castors which allow the castors to turn without jamming and ensure that the vehicle always has four-wheel drive. It has a simple steering mechanism, and a very small turning circle. The wheelchair functions on an eight-hour charge, and can run for 12 miles on a single charge, and can travel at a speed of 4 miles per hour. It also has an override function, so users can choose to go into freewheel mode if required. The compact and flexible chair – which also has a very sleek and contemporary design - has an adjustable seat which can slide forward at the click of a mouse, enabling the user to get closer to the table for dinner, and the arms easily fold back for side transfer.

Steve Beeby, Superintendent of Buildings at St John’s, volunteered to be the first person at the College to try out the wheelchair. Taking control of the seat, with instruction from Eric, he easily managed to manoeuvre the chair along the Avenue to New Court, rode over the cobbles around Second Court, turned the chair around in a tight doorway, rode down the sloping pathways around Chapel Court and up and down kerbs, and successfully negotiated the Bridge of Sighs, which was the main concern due to the steep incline leading onto the Bridge.

The WHILL wheelchair is being hosted and trialled at St John’s until 7 August. If other Cambridge Colleges are interested in taking it for a test drive they are invited to contact the Domestic Bursar’s Office on

For more information on the wheelchair, visit