Designing Mobility for the World

Mark E. SmithWhen we think of innovation, we often think of the highest of the high-tech. Yet, innovation isn’t always just about technology. It’s about how its application truly changes lives.

The earthquake in Haiti brought the plight of the developing world to television screens across North America. While the earthquake’s devastation is evident — thousands now need wheelchairs due to recent permanent injuries — the fact is, Haiti had a tremendous need prior to the earthquake for mobility technology. Many with disabilities have gone without wheelchairs due to a lack of infrastructure. Yet, Haiti is just one developing country among many that lack even basic mobility technology for those in need.

The United Nations Development Program estimates that from Africa to South America, there are over 20 million people in need of wheelchairs globally. What’s more, for those needing wheelchairs in developing countries, the roadblocks aren’t merely financial. Other obstacles are inhospitable terrain, lack of materials, and no distribution system. Put simply, in many developing countries, it’s all but unthinkable for those with disabilities to fund, manufacture, use and maintain a wheelchair.

Fortunately, there are several U.S.-based programs that have developed innovative wheelchair technologies for developing countries, where the challenges tackled range from materials to terrain to societal infrastructure.

Innovating in the Real World
Innovation aimed at supplying suitable wheelchairs to the developing world began with Ralf Hotchkiss, who started designing wheelchairs for third world conditions in the late 1970s. Hotchkiss is well-known to NEW MOBILITY readers. In 1989 he not only founded the Wheeled Mobility Center at San Francisco State University, he also was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Award.” Hotchkiss pioneered the practice of employing people with disabilities in their native countries to manufacture their own durable wheelchairs from local materials. Since then his Whirlwind Wheelchairs International has manufactured and distributed more than 50,000 RoughRider wheelchairs in developing countries. After the earthquake in Haiti, Hotchkiss appeared on PBS’ News Hour, with Jim Lehrer, bringing attention to the developing world’s need for wheelchairs on a global scale.

Following Hotchkiss’ philosophy, Amos Winter, a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering who runs MIT’s Mobility Lab, has been working with international collaborators to develop the Leveraged Freedom Chair, a manual wheelchair specifically designed for the economies and terrain of developing countries. Like Hotchkiss, Winter started with the understanding that his design had to incorporate inexpensive materials found in developing countries, and provide exceptional outdoor capabilities on unpaved, inhospitable terrain. This led Winter to design a wheelchair that cost less than $200 to make, and includes a lever drive system, utilizing a bicycle drive train, a more efficient propulsion method than conventional pushing of the wheels on rough terrain.

Rather than building his initial chairs in an MIT lab, Winter traveled to East Africa and fabricated six wheelchairs on site, with local resources, for specific users, proving both the manufacturing process and functional capabilities of the design. Over three weeks, Winter documented the LFC’s exceptional performance over the terrain of developing countries, and its practicality — a potential local manufacturing scale of 500 or more units per month once a local workshop is established. Currently, Winter has a $50,000 grant, which he’s using to refine the design — making it lighter and more compact — and he’s preparing a 30-chair trial in South America this summer, with large-scale local manufacturing in developing countries beginning in 2011.

Designs Evolving With Culture
Like the MIT program and Whirlwind Wheelchair International, Intelligent Mobility International’s wheelchair design for developing countries also began at a college with bicycle parts in mind — only far more literally. In 2008 co-founder and executive director Daniel Oliver and three of his peers from the California Institute of Technology set out on a weighty task: to turn bicycles, which are in abundance in developing countries, into actual wheelchairs. And they accomplished it, where with two bicycle frames and four cuts, the geometry transformed the bicycles into a wheelchair frame.

Other of the bikes’ components — from handle bars to forks — were also recycled into components like footplates and caster forks. Additionally, such components as wide, solid rubber tires were used for functionality and durability on the rough terrain. The team’s design was introduced with great success in Guatemala, and they helped establish a local manufacturing facility. However, the “innovation” was truly just beginning. As the local manufacturing craftsmen gained experience, the IMI team found that the craftsmen could fabricate wheelchairs from local raw materials cost-effectively. Now on a third-generation design, IMI’s wheelchairs in Guatemala are extremely refined, offering comforts like armrests and a folding frame without sacrificing practicality, durability or local sustainability.

As the WWI, MIT and IMI programs demonstrate, innovation isn’t only about a product, but about a process, where getting a meaningful wheelchair to the millions in need around the globe may prove the greatest mobility innovation of all.

Resources
• Intelligent Mobility International, www.intelligentmobility.org.
• MIT Mobility Lab, http://mlab.mit.edu.
• Whirlwind Wheelchairs International, www.whirlwindwheelchair.org.

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