In 1986, Norman Rolston watched his aunt Maida, crippled with arthritis, push a kitchen chair across the floor as she tried to walk.
Watching his aunt struggle, Rolston got the idea that if he attached wheels to her chair, it would be easier for her to use.
Fastening an old shopping cart and a stroller together, Rolston made a walker for his aunt that she could use while shopping.
After her friends saw the invention, they all wanted one too, and soon Rolston couldn’t keep up with the orders.
He eventually designed a prototype and officially created the Able Walker.
Much different from other walkers available at the time — which were often unsafe — the Able Walker had swivel castors on the wheels, supportive handholds and brakes.
Rolston then gifted the invention to the world by not patenting it.
Today, millions of people have relied on his walker to provide them with mobility and independence.
And for that, he was awarded a 2015 Order of British Columbia.
This is the highest form of recognition the province can give its citizens.
City council honoured Rolston, a Langley resident, during its Sept. 14 council meeting.
Council gave Roltson a standing ovation, and then presented a plaque while playing the song, Able Walker in the background.
“With our gratitude from the citizens of the City of Langley and the community as a whole, thank you very much, and your family should be very proud of you,” City Mayor Ted Schaffer said to Rolston.
This is just one of many accolades he has received.
In 1993, he was awarded a Special Humanitarian Award, recognizing the profound effect the Able Walker has had on seniors’ freedom and independence.
The Los Angeles Times voted the Able Walker one of the “Top Ten International Inventions of the 1990s,” and recognized it as a device that improved the quality of life for all generations.
He has also had prior nominations for both the Order of B.C and the Order of Canada.
— files from Jim McGregor
The Able Walker — Inventing the freedom to move
From Living 60 Plus, originally published by The Times in May, 2013
Langley resident Norm Rolston will be the first to tell you he knew nothing of inventions, marketing or international selling.
But that didn’t stop him from creating and distributing the Able Walker, considered one of Canada’s most significant inventions of the 20th century.
“Back in 1986, I got the idea for the Able Walker from watching my aunt Maida trying to walk across the floor pushing a kitchen chair,” Norman said.
“It was a painful experience for her to move or bend so, using old shopping carts and a stroller, soon I had a walker that she could use to hold on to, to go shopping with. Well, her friends soon needed one like it and so on, and soon I couldn’t take a day off I was so busy building them. There were walkers around at the time I designed mine but, they didn’t have casters on the front so you could turn it. Mine had other features too, the handholds are at the front gave real support, and you can put on the brakes when you had to.”
Norm will share that he was born ‘dirt poor’ on a small Saskatchewan farm. “My family was in the transportation business. They started with ox teams, mule teams and eventually trucks and I guess I had that in my blood,” he said.
In 1973 Norm turned a single crane truck into the Rolston Crane and Freight Ltd. which grew to 15 cranes and related equipment until he passed it on to his family. In 1986, Norm took out the patent on the Able Walker and began his new career.
“My wife Myrtle and I ran off a bunch of flyers with a picture demonstrating a woman using the Able Walker. It had a few lines describing it and the price, $259.50. We stuck these flyers up in every laundromat, bulletin board, old folk’s homes, recreation and bingo hall from Vancouver to Saskatoon. We practically lived right out of the van. By the time we got back home to Burnaby orders were starting to roll in.”
While the walker was becoming popular, the biggest challenge was overcoming the skepticism of the medical profession.
“They had reason to be wary. Other walkers weren’t safe. They toppled over too easily. But I meet with C. Everett Koop the Surgeon General of the United States and he thought it was a great invention. When medical people had their doubts I showed them my picture and letter from the Surgeon General and they backed down. Now I have doctors say to me, ‘Norman I wasn’t too sure about that at first. But I have no doubts about it now.’ I’ve been told by doctors that patients they had who could never before attend their clinics come in with their ‘Able Walkers’ confident as can be. It’s the change of attitude, the independence that’s been given to them. I just borrowed some good ideas and made them come together in place.”
Norman shrugs off his lack of formal education. He had only a Grade 7 education, but never let even that get in the way of success.
“The biggest regret in my life was not leaving school three or four years earlier. My only credential is a D.O.P.E. — Doctor of Personal Experience,” he said.
“Sometime I would be on a stage making a presentation and here I was with no medical knowledge of bones or muscles but I was an old farm boy and could see what was needed and I listened to the people who needed help.
“I got a lesson in geography when all these foreign sales orders coming in. I travelled all over bringing the idea to the world. I once gave one to George Ives, Canada’s oldest man at 109. He was going to England to meet the Queen and they told him he couldn’t bring the walker on the plane. He told them he was going to meet the Queen and if his walker didn’t go, he wasn’t going.”
Norm has apple boxes full of testimonial letters from around the world and albums full of photos with celebrities such as George Burns, Margaret Thatcher, Juliette, Kitty Wells and Rita McNeil.
“I was proud to present one to Annette Funicello when she contracted MS. Her letter was very touching,” he said.
“Eventually I had to have the walkers manufactured in Taiwan to meet the demand and the pricing. My goal was to have 1 million people using this device worldwide, whether it was my design or someone else’s prototype. Early on, my legal folks told me that whether I had the patent or not, the ‘Big Boys’ would eventually out produce me if it was successful. That was good knowledge because I resigned myself to the fact that if I was prepared to give my invention to others, they couldn’t take it from me.
“I was very pleased that the Able Walker was giving people back their freedom and independence and that meant more to me than money. Six months after we started selling them I received a letter from a mother of a 13 year old boy who had cerebral palsy. He was walking and playing soccer for the first time in years using his walker. I knew that’s what this was all about.”
In 1993, Norm was especially proud to receive the Special Humanitarian Award, which recognized the profound effect the Able Walker has had on seniors’ freedom and independence, at a conference in Pasadena. This was only one of many accolades and awards Norm and his walker received.
“The Los Angeles Times voted the Able Walker one of the Top Ten International Inventions of the 1990s, and recognized it as a device that improved the quality of life for all generations,” he said.
Norm has also been nominated for both the Order of B.C and the Order of Canada although has received neither for his contribution to society. He shrugs and smiles, “I guess I didn’t score any important hockey goals or get elected to anything.”
For all those coming along behind Norm has some valuable advice.
“Believe in yourself. Your university education, not that I have any, lays a good groundwork for a beginning but it’s no meal ticket. Don’t forget the most important asset you have, common sense. Build from there. Education can be a help to you but don’t let it be a hindrance to you, too. Some initials after your name don’t mean a thing in many cases.”
Norm has also produced some medical assist devices for portable oxygen tanks and even though he is now in his eighties, his mind hasn’t stopped.
“I see so many things out there that need doing,” he said. “Pick something that needs some work to be done on it and improve on it.”
As I left Norm’s modest Langley apartment I passed a lady with a walker laden with bags of groceries.
“That’s a pretty good load you have on there,” I commented.
“Well I’d be absolutely lost without my walker,” she replied.
– Jim McGregor