It could be said that Ralph’s invention of the vehicle wheelchair lift served as the catalyst for our revolution, the disability rights movement. Without the lift there would have been no fight for equal access to public transportation because there would have been no way to get on a bus or train.
For years I bugged Ralph to allow me to film a short documentary about his life, and finally this past October he agreed. So I jumped in my Braun Entervan and drove to The Braun Corporation’s national headquarters in Winamac, Ind. During the long road trip from California, my mind raced. Why did I have this burning desire to tell his story? Over the years there have been news stories and articles about Ralph and even an autobiography, but none of these seemed to fully capture the Ralph I knew. I did not want to think about a world, my world, without Ralph, but he was losing his fight with cancer and this would probably be the last time I saw him. I was somewhere in middle of the country when I realized that I was on this quest because I wanted others to know the Ralph I knew, so they could perhaps learn from him as I had.
Inventions such as the steam engine, cotton gin and light bulb all contributed to the Industrial Revolution. It could also be said that Ralph’s invention of the vehicle wheelchair lift served as the catalyst for our revolution, the disability rights movement. Without the lift there would have been no fight for equal access to public transportation because there would have been no way to get on a bus or train. The vehicle lift gave wheelchair users opportunities that can only come from mobility freedom. Access to transportation opened up education and employment for generations to come.
When people accomplish great things, I get curious as to what contributed to their success. Did they have some special training or connections? In Ralph’s case, he was from a poor family in rural Indiana. How poor? Well, Ralph put it this way: “To this day I have a hatred for pancakes because when I was growing up they were all we could afford. Pancakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner … that’s all we ever had!” In fact, he was so poor his family didn’t even have indoor plumbing until he was 10, and his mother made clothes for the family out of old chicken feed sacks.
As a child Ralph was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, a form of muscular dystrophy. He was aware of the doctor’s prediction that he would not live past his teens, but that never stopped him. He recalls: “I just pushed forward to whatever I had to do, and never really looked at myself as being disabled. Inconvenienced maybe, but not disabled.”
Ralph’s first invention was the Tri-Wheeler electric scooter. He rode the scooter to his job at a nearby factory despite the heat, rain, or snow. Now that he was employed, Ralph married and started a family of his own. When the company he worked for decided to move to a new location much further away, Ralph’s Tri-Wheeler was no longer an option. He quickly came up with a solution to his problem by purchasing an old postal truck and attaching a lift to the back, thus creating the first vehicle wheelchair lift.
Soon people came from all over wanting the same solution to their mobility needs. Ralph said, “It started off sort of word of mouth, and then the television series “Ironside” had a wheelchair vehicle lift on TV and our phones started ringing off the hook. I started building Tri-Wheelers and lifts, but I couldn’t keep up with the demand. That encouraged me to terminate my full-time employment, which was probably the riskiest day of my life, to leave a steady job and take a chance starting my own company. At that time I had a wife and four little kids at home, but I felt what we were doing was important.”
He didn’t know how important, and he had no grand plans for success. He was just working hard to fill a need. Luckily for all of us, Ralph was a talented engineer and perhaps more importantly a risk-taker. As he put it, “A lot of people will go for the sure thing and not for the possible thing that could be, if you just take a few risks.” He was quick to explain that he considered himself a cautious and thoughtful risk-taker, but once he made up his mind, he didn’t let anyone interfere with that decision.
In 1970, when Dodge came out with a full-size van, Ralph made the decision to have it fitted with the first modern wheelchair lift. His company, Save-A-Step, soon became The Braun Corporation, and one location with five employees became global — with more than 800 employees. Bernie Blackmon, who also uses a wheelchair and has worked as the assistive technology specialist for The Braun Corporation since 1973, remembers his first impression of the boss: “I had seen a lot of people whose disability was the thing that was most obvious about them, but with Ralph I didn’t see his disability first. And since my accident, that was the way I wanted people to see me.”
Recently I asked a number of Ralph’s friends and employees to describe him in one word. Here are some of the words they chose: visionary, humble, honest, loyal, leader, persistent, caring, genius, amazing, fun-loving, smart, kind, quick, powerful. All true, but to better understand Ralph — a car guy — perhaps we should look under the hood to find out what exactly it was that made him such a good businessman.
Ralph told me that you have to have a burning desire for what you’re doing in order to be successful. And he stressed the importance of hiring the right people. “Choose good employees and then let them do the job,” he said. “They’re going to make mistakes, everybody makes mistakes, but you’ve got to give them the opportunity. If you micromanage, your growth is going to be micro — so you have to get over that urge to control everything … you have to trust people.”
Nick Gutwein, the person Ralph trusted as president of The Braun Corporation, says that Ralph’s strength of character and his guts to do what was right, even when it was not popular, made him a very strong leader. He adds, “He had a sentimental caring side, but he could also be extremely tough. Ralph’s vision — to make life a moving experience for everyone — has inspired the company for decades and is our foundation.”
Meeting the Man
I first learned about Ralph when I was hired to write a feature screenplay about the life of Beverly Chapman. Beverly, who had limb-girdle MD, was one of the pioneers in the disability rights movement, and a friend of Ralph’s. I was fresh out of film school, and having been mainstreamed my whole life, I really didn’t know much about the battles others had fought on my behalf. Ironically, I was hired by a producer who thought Beverly and I had so much in common, when in fact, I knew nothing about Beverly’s world. Until that time, I only knew one other person who used a wheelchair — a childhood friend from MDA’s summer camp.
Beverly taught me about a community, a tribe if you will, people with common experiences who were fighting for common goals. As I wrote Beverly’s life story, I learned about her friendship with Ralph that had started in 1977 when Beverly was crowned Miss Wheelchair America. Ralph told me, “She approached me because she thought I should give her a van to use during her reign because it would be a great advertising opportunity.” Then he smiled. “She was very convincing. I remember she said, ‘have I got a deal for you!’” Beverly was a mover and a shaker who would never give up. So, it is easy to see why these kindred spirits would become friends.
Sadly it was Beverly’s unexpected death in 1993 that lead to my meeting Ralph. When the rights to Beverly’s story and the screenplay I had written became tangled up in her estate, it looked like her story would never be told. Ralph and I both knew the importance of telling Beverly’s story, so we joined forces to purchase the rights. Suddenly I was Ralph’s business partner, but more than that, Ralph filled the mentor void Beverly left for me, and perhaps I filled the trouble-maker, pain in the ass, tell-it-like-it-is void for him. In any case, I spent the next 16 years enjoying every chance I had to get to know Ralph a little better.
The first time I met Ralph in person he was in town for a convention, and I offered to give him a ride to his hotel. As my lift unfolded, it dawned on me that I used a Ricon lift — the main Braun competitor. My lift made the usual loud banging noises as it unfolded and Ralph rolled his eyes. I muttered something like, “Well, I didn’t know you when I bought it.” He laughed. Come to think of it, I’ve only used Braun products since then. Mainly because I trust that Ralph wouldn’t make something that he wouldn’t use himself. There is a first-person user understanding that shows in the design and functionality of everything he develops.
When I directed my first feature film, I asked Ralph if I could borrow one of his minivans for filming since our action hero was going to be a wheelchair user and a ramp van would allow her to get out fast when she was chasing the bad guys. He said yes, but I neglected to tell him that the van would also be featured in our chase scenes. When we screened the film for Ralph, I sat next to him in the theater. After his van barely missed a semi truck and spun to a screeching stop, I leaned over to him and said, “It performs well.” To which he replied, “I see that.” Ralph was easy going, and he understood what it felt like to have passion for what you do. He helped launch my filmmaking career, and as long as I gave it my all, I knew he was always going to be in my corner.
But I wasn’t the only one he helped to achieve their dreams. Ralph was there for many people in many ways and often did it anonymously. Recently he formed the Ralph Braun Foundation, so that his tradition of helping people would always continue. Ralph explained, “We fund grants to disabled individuals who need an extra boost to get a vehicle, hand controls, or other mobility equipment. And we have even funded other manufacturer’s vans, so we’re not prejudiced. We try to give whoever deserves help whatever they want.”
Becky Kroft, who has been Ralph’s long time executive assistant and probably knew him best, put it this way, “Ralph is always looking for ways to help someone who has less of a chance to have more of a chance.”
Memories of My Mentor
I remember the first time I visited Ralph at his headquarters. It was like going to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, but this place was built for the wheelchair user. There were trigger buttons in the floor that would open office doors when you rolled over them. When you approached the elevator, the door would open and it would automatically take you to the next floor. There was even a wheelchair-accessible catwalk over the van assembly line. Everything was amazingly accessible. When I asked Ralph why he went to such extremes for the building, he said: “If you’re going to set an example for other businesses and people, you’ve got to do it yourself first. Otherwise nobody is going to pay attention to you.”
Ralph was busy working in his office when I’d roll in, but he’d always take time to talk and show me his latest invention. Being curious by nature, I’d ask him a million questions and he would either explain how it worked or playfully say, “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill ya.”
He had a long table behind his desk full of “projects” that he was working on. As he explained, “I probably have 120 things I’m working on inventing. Every now and then I finish one up. If I finish all of them up, I won’t have anything to look forward to.” Most recently he was working on ways to give quadriplegics more independence and control of their environment. Megan Wegner, communications manager at The Braun Corporation, told me that since she was 13 her family had an Entervan parked in their garage due to her father’s spinal cord injury. She said, “One day Ralph asked how my dad was doing and I mentioned that he was having difficulty and needed a way to operate his TV and computer more independently. The next day, Ralph set my dad up with a system that solved the problem.”
Ralph always had something cool at the shop. Some were practical things to help in everyday life and others were just plain fun. He had everything from an accessible golf cart to a hot air balloon for which he designed an accessible basket. Ralph was an optimist who saw the possibilities in everything. He lived life to the fullest and made sure others could do the same.
I have known other big shot business owners and CEOs that have gatekeepers to keep people at a distance, but Ralph gave me direct contact to him — via his cell — and he was always approachable. I remember calling him once with an emergency mechanical question, and he dropped everything to help me solve the problem. Ralph told me that people used to call him “the answer man,” and I certainly understand why.
I always tried to be respectful of his time and position, and we developed this hybrid friendship/mentor-mentee relationship. Of course, I was much younger, but we did have some common ground. We had the same exact kind of MD, and we both shared a passion for driving. Since the vehicle lift inspired other companies to develop specialized driving controls, not only could I go places, but now I could drive myself. When I was behind the wheel with the tunes cranked up, cruising down the highway, there was no difference between me and anyone else on the road. It was magnificent.
When Ralph asked me why I wanted to tell his story, I told him because I think it is important for people with or without disabilities to understand that the American Dream is attainable no matter what they are facing. In a world full of self-help gurus who don’t offer real answers, I believe Ralph’s legacy is a blueprint for true success. As Bernie said, “There are so many people in this world that consider themselves victims of their circumstances, but Ralph was inspired by his.”
I am grateful to have known Ralph, and I learned a lot from him over the years, but perhaps the most important thing I learned was his definition of success: “I think you’re successful when you’re happy with yourself,” he said. “That’s really what success is all about. If you’re content, happy with what you’re doing, and know that you’re doing something for humanity, what more could you ask for?”
Jenni Gold’s most recent documentary, CinemAbility, examines the portrayals of people with disabilities in the media.