Richard Stevens didn’t know that a 1995 stay at a Holiday Inn would be the catalyst for a new chapter in his life. His family was on vacation to support Stevens’ daughter at a gymnastics meet when they decided to go for a swim in the hotel pool.
“When we got down there, there was no way for me to get in the water,” said Stevens, who uses a wheelchair. A former sign hanger, 28 years ago he fell from a billboard and was paralyzed. “I had to transfer from my wife’s shoulder to the concrete and I thought, ‘This is crazy! There has to be a better way.’ ”
And Stevens Pool Ladder, LLC, was born. After that fateful family trip, Stevens approached his cousin, Jim Dehenau, and the two began the process of developing a product for those who could not access the pool by traditional means. The ladder they eventually developed features a gentle grade and cushions to protect against pain from atrophied muscles, which Stevens compares to walking across a tile floor on your elbows.
The top step is at wheelchair level, so the user can simply transfer out of the chair onto the step and then descend into the water in a sitting position, sliding from step to step until reaching the bottom, where they can slip into the water. To leave the pool, the process is reversed.
“I feel like it keeps your dignity intact,” Stevens said. “Until you’re in my shoes, you don’t know what it’s like to transfer in and out of the pool. People are going to look, and I understand that. With injuries like mine, you have no trunk control, so you can’t put your feet out to stop from falling on your face.”
Growing up, Stevens lived along the St. Clair River in Michigan, near where his company is based in Marine City. Though he never considered himself an exceptional swimmer, he was constantly in the water while growing up and values the memories of splashing around with his friends and family, including Dehenau. He wants others with injuries like his to have similar experiences.
“I’ve read a lot about the therapeutic qualities of water, too,” Stevens said. “And when I’m in the pool now, I can actually stand up because of the buoyancy. It’s great to have that feeling.”
He and Dehenau built four prototypes before officially launching the company in 2009, bringing different incarnations of the ladder to trade shows along the way.
“We went to the Atlantic City Show in 2005,” Stevens said. “That was something. We had boat cushions on the ladder then and it looked like something from outer space.” After experimenting with step heights that would provide maximum comfort and control, they discovered the “sweet spot” at 5.75 inches. Possible applications include YMCAs, aquatic therapy centers, assisted living homes and more.
“It [was] an uphill battle, getting a company started in this economy, but I’m so excited about it,” Stevens said. “I’ve had so much help from people close to me, pitching in as consultants, doing our drawings and helping every way they could.”
Wanting to pass that good will on, Stevens has spoken to groups such as his county’s Council for Independent Living and visited a local school during “Invention Week” to inspire kids with his story. “I want to let them know that if you have a good idea that will help people, don’t be afraid to pursue it,” he said. “I’m just an average Joe, and look what I’ve done.”