He set out to do something about that. With the help of Ray Metzger, also a pipe fitter, Houston devised a wheelchair that would enable him to move around in a standing position. "I was a person who built things," says Houston, now 47, "Chemical plants. Oil refineries. Big things. And I felt that when it came to wheelchairs, there was something better to be built."
Houston and Metzger, both Denver residents, built their first HiRider without plans, using the material they knew best: metal pipe. But even that first, primitive version did the trick, according to Houston: "You could drive it. You could turn it. You could stand up, and it didn't turn over. It allowed me to function, and it raised my self-esteem at the same time." The prototype, which had no wheels, was "built just so I could stand up. It was just a platform that raised and lowered me from a seated position. Pretty soon, though, I got tired of going back and forth to my wheelchair, so we started modifications, adding wheels and a drive so we could have horizontal movement too." In its present configuration, the chair can accommodate users from 5' to 6'6".
The HiRider went on the national market for $11,500 in July, but prototypes were made available to a selected few earlier. One devotee of the HiRider is Dr. Scott Wallace of Beaumont, Texas, an orthopedic surgeon who used to examine his patients from a wheelchair but now is able to "stand" and look at them on his examining table. Robert Schmitt, a retired military man from Westminster, Colo., unveiled his HiRider at his wedding last October. Says Schmitt: "You should have seen the people's faces when I 'walked' down the aisle."
The HiRider has done more than just enhance Houston's self-esteem. It is now his livelihood as well. He commutes from the brick ranch house he shares with his second wife, Kathleen, to the storefront office of his company, Mobility Plus, by specially equipped van. He is currently concentrating on improving and marketing the HiRider (a version with a breath-control-operated device, for those who can't use the standard-equipment joystick, is in the works). Houston is convinced that the chair will help thousands like him climb out of their ruts. "When you can stand up," says Houston, aboard his HiRider, "all is changed."
In 1979 pipe fitter Tom Houston fell from a collapsing scaffold while helping to build a power-generating station in Wyoming. "I had a back injury," he recalls, "a dislocated disk, but it seemed manageable." After a year of fainting spells and falls—and progressive deterioration of his spine—Houston was paralyzed from the chest down. He spent most of the next few years moping around the house, "frustrated by a life that allowed me no movement." When he did go out, it was in a wheelchair. "When you're sitting in a wheelchair, people don't look at you," he says. "They look past you. It's a tremendous psychological burden." What's more, sitting all day caused Houston bowel and bladder dysfunction, pressure sores, muscle spasms and swelling of his hands and feet. "It's hard to work," he says, "when you have to spend half a day taking care of yourself."