MIT Engineer Creates Wheelchair for the Disabled in the Developing World
According to the World Health Organization, more than 65 million people in the developing world are in need of a wheelchair. The majority of them live in rural areas that lack paved roads, sidewalks and ramps. Such areas are typically not wheelchair friendly, at least not for the traditional wheelchair.

Faced with the task of designing a chair that could tackle difficult terrain but is also cheap, easy to build and locally repairable, MIT engineer Amos Winter created what is now known as The Leveraged Freedom Chair (LFC).

The LFC’s design in comparison to a standard wheelchair is best described through an analogy. A wheelchair as we in the developed world know it to be is most similar to a classic street bicycle. On the other hand, the LFC is comparable to a mountain bike. Designed for rough and rugged travel, the LFC (like a mountain bike) allows riders to shift gears depending on the level of torque they need for a given journey.

The LFC is now distributed through the Global Research Innovation and Technology team (GRIT). It comes in three sizes — small, standard and large — and is sold in bulk for NGOs, governments and aid agencies that then supply them to individuals. Each chair costs about $200, which is much cheaper than the average manual chair, which can run as high as $800.

The LFC has been distributed throughout 17 developing countries and has helped more than 1,500 disabled individuals regain their mobility in a way that is suitable for their living environment.

Ashok is a LFC rider from India who became immobile as a result of a spinal cord injury. After his injury, he was unable to travel to work in his tailoring shop because the hospital-style wheelchair could not withstand the terrain. Ashok was given a LFC in 2011 when GRIT launched their Indian field trail. Once Ashok received his LFC, he said, “Everything [went] back to normal.”

While mobility is vital to a suitable standard of living, independence and dignity are also necessary aspects. The LFC allows disabled individuals living in developing nations to return to normalcy and continue living their lives.

Brittney Dimond

Sources: TED, Squarespace 1, Squarespace 2, Gogrit
Photo: Flickr

The earliest depiction of a wheelchair can be found on an ancient Chinese engraving from 535 A.D. However wheelbarrow like chairs were used as early as the third century. These early wheelchairs were often used tote around people who were too rich or important to walk on their own. One of the most famous early wheelchair users was Philip II of Spain who suffered from gout, other wise known as the “rich man’s disease.” The wheelchair began to take on its modern form in the 18th century. Belgium-born inventor John Joseph Merlin, inventor of roller skates, created a maneuverable, sedan-like wheelchair for people with gout.

Improvements were made upon the sedan wheelchair and the predecessor of modern upright, self-propelled chair came to be. This early modern wheelchair was known as the Bath Chair. It was invented by John Dawson of Bath, England. The chair was constructed with two large wheels and one small one. The chair was used to move immobile people to spa waters. This wheel chair was much more maneuverable and outsold all other models even into the early 19th century.

Yet despite the progress that the Bath chair made, it was still not very comfortable for people to sit in for many hours, and it was still extremely large and bulky. In 1869, a patent was developed for wheelchairs with rear push wheels and small front casters. During this time, hollow rubber wheels were added to metal rims on the chairs. By 1881, pushrims were invented so that users of wheelchairs could push themselves. By 1916, a motorized wheel chair had already been invented. By then, the wheelchair was much more compact with the lightweight models weighing only 58 pounds.

In 1933, Herbert A. Everest, a paraplegic, sought a wheelchair that could be placed in a car. Everest’s friend and engineer Harry Jennings would work to design the first metal foldable wheelchair. Furthermore, Jennings and Everest would go on to found Everest & Jennings, a wheelchair company that would dominate the market for many years. The wheelchair would undergo many modifications during the course of history. The rise of the automobile led to the creation of compact wheelchairs. Improved medical services and better understanding of disabilities would also prompt further innovation.

Most importantly the wheelchair would develop from a rich man’s luxury to a vital device for countless people with disabilities. Today the wheelchair is one of the most commonly used devices for aiding in personal mobility. According to the World Health Organization, 1% of the world’s population requires the use of a wheelchair. However those needing wheelchairs in developing countries are often unable to obtain wheelchairs due to the lack of production facilities. Furthermore, wheelchairs donated are often insufficiently equipped or ill fitting for the poor in developing nations. Thus today the wheelchair still needs significant innovation to reach the poor. Improvements can be made upon the structure and material so that the wheelchair can be easily built in developing nations. By providing better mobility, the wheelchair can open up doors to better education, work and social lives for people in developing nations.

– Grace Zhao

Sources: History Extra, Inventors, Wheelchair Net, World Health Organization

Maintaining mobility and independence can be challenging for millions of disabled people around the world. While a physical handicap may make life more difficult no matter where you live, many physically disabled people in the developing world aren’t able to purchase a wheelchair either for lack of funds or they simply because aren’t available. That’s where The Wheelchair Foundation comes in.

The Wheelchair Foundation, a branch of the Global Health and Education Foundation, works to provide wheelchairs to the people that need them throughout the developing world. The chairs are given at no cost to the families that receive them. An estimated 100 million people in the developing world are physically disabled and either wheelchair-bound or in need of a wheelchair to move around. The Wheelchair Foundation works with many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that operate in the countries to which the wheelchairs are delivered and from there, the chairs are equipped and delivered in person. The organization also distributes chairs to Americans in need by working with Goodwill, Catholic Charities, and groups that work to help American veterans.

Organizations such as this one are great because of their specialization and their use of existing networks. Specialization without the great connections could lead to a less efficient organization but utilizing their relationships with other NGOs and government programs allows The Wheelchair Foundation to be a real success that addresses an important problem that many people in the developing world face each day.

– Kevin Sullivan

Source: The Wheelchair Foundation
Photo: Mental Floss