On a Friday night in 2019, Gesy Duran prepared to dine at an Italian restaurant with her wife. She was excited for the special occasion. Duran had been paralyzed three years earlier, and this was the first time she had gone out since.
“I spent most of my time just going to physical therapy, going to doctor’s appointments,” she said. “I didn’t do anything besides that. I didn’t want the wheelchair to be uncomfortable for people.”
Nonetheless, Duran agreed to the dinner.
“I’m like, I’m ready to see the world. I’m ready for the world to see me,” she said. “I feel like a butterfly coming out of a caterpillar.”
But the feeling didn’t last long. When Duran got to the table, she saw that her wheelchair wouldn’t fit under it; the table was too low. In order to eat without having to lean forward, risking losing her balance, Duran would have to turn her wheelchair sideways against the table and twist her body back around to reach her plate — unsustainable for a two-hour meal.
“At that moment, I felt more paralyzed than I was," she said. "How is it that a table, just a simple table that everybody could eat on, I can’t? I was crushed to know that I finally decided to go out and try to have a good time, and now this is happening.”
Duran didn’t eat out that night. She left the restaurant and got a cab, crying on the way home. What she experienced was just another of the seeming endless indignities, frustrating, humiliating, and sometimes painful, that the over 60 million Americans with disabilities experience every day. Many wheelchairs cannot fit under restaurant tables because of their size or other issues. Duran noticed other wheelchair users facing the same problem.
But it wasn’t until a second outing, months later, that Duran had her big idea. It was a celebration held at a TGI Fridays, and Duran was determined not to leave. The table’s legs wouldn’t allow her wheelchair to fit under it, so she asked for a serving tray to eat from. It worked well enough, and inspiration struck. What if there were a foldable, adjustable tray that could connect securely to the underside of any table with a screw? You could take it anywhere and use for it anything from eating meals to studying in a library.
Duran was excited, and she reached out to a friend who was a carpenter. But the pandemic got in the way, and the idea lay dormant until Duran, who had since started at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), heard about the Blackstone Launchpad Competition, a business pitch contest for students. Having no business background, she was nervous and did some procrastinating.
“I actually signed up three minutes before the deadline,” she said. “I felt behind because I’m competing versus students who had business majors. I just had an idea.”
But once she got to working with Dr. Shane Snipes, an assistant professor of business management who served as the on-campus coordinator of the contest, it was clear that she had something special.
“People come at pitch competitions with a lot of reasons,” said Snipes. “The ones that have a real passion behind what they’re doing because it means something more than just making money, those are the ones that become successful.”
Duran and Snipes worked on the product itself as well as the pitch, tweaking it so that it focused on Duran’s story. She decided to call the product “Wheel-Eating." She was encouraged when she polled her wheelchair basketball team; 10 of the 15 players said that they would use her product. But she never expected to win, first the BMCC-only round, then the national consumer products and services category, with its $10,000 prize.
“I couldn’t believe it. I had to read it twice,” said Duran. “If I wasn’t on my chair, I probably would have collapsed on the floor.”
Duran used part of her winnings to fund the creation of a wooden prototype. She said she was thrilled to use it for the first time at a restaurant.
“No more leaning over, no more breaking my back, no more getting dirty. It’s accessible for me,” she said. “And I cried. I was just like, wow, I did this. I kept touching it.”
Duran also got a great response from her basketball teammates.
“They loved it,” she said. “They love how comfortable it is to just take with you anywhere. And they said, to have something created for them by somebody who’s also in a wheelchair, that’s something they’re proud of.”
With the help of Snipes, she’s now researching larger-scale manufacturing and making adjustments. She hopes to make the final product out of plastic, so that it’s lighter, and to make the screw smaller so that people with hand mobility issues can attach it to tables more easily. She’s also dreaming of seeing Wheel-Eating out in the world.
“I can’t wait ‘til I take it with me on vacation,” she said. “I can’t wait to see people in California, Chicago, Florida send me pictures of them using the tray, smiling in a restaurant or in the library at school.”
Duran is working on other products that solve issues of accessibility, including a waterproof wheelchair cover, and a specially designed crib so that mothers in wheelchairs can take their children out safely. She was also the recipient of a Blackstone Fellowship, which provides $5,000 and mentoring about how to run a start-up business. To top it all off, she graduated from BMCC recently with a place on the dean’s list, a major step in what has been a long educational journey, interrupted by medical issues. And she won't have to worry when she goes out to a restaurant to celebrate her the wins.
“[Wheel-Eating] made me realize my capabilities,” Duran said. “My disability gave me the ability to see my abilities.”
Jon Edelman can be reached at JEdelman@DiverseEducation.com