Nov 2, 2018: Developing countries often remain so due to underdeveloped transportation systems, which limit people’s ability to access food, products, and services. Coupled with disabilities, it can be nearly impossible for those with physical disabilities to have any access to needed healthcare providers as well as travel around one’s own rural town.
While visiting Tanzania in 2005, MIT Assistant Professor Amos Winter discovered that many persons with disabilities in developing countries are unable to move around easily due to their dirt roads or undeveloped terrain. After getting in touch with wheelchair users, advocacy groups and wheelchair tech companies, he realized that there were really no wheelchair options that supported heavy outdoor use. This prompted Winter to develop a wheelchair that could withstand rough terrain while also being able to be used inside.
Based on the gears of a mountain bike, the wheelchair gained a third wheel that involved a lever system to enable the user to be able to go forward and over obstacles. It was also essential to the developers to create a wheelchair that was easy to maintain no matter where the user was located. To conduct field tests, the team had users trial the wheelchair prototypes in East Africa, Guatemala and India.
Winter sourced the help from MIT students for four years in a course, EC.721 (Wheelchair Design in Developing Countries) combining the efforts of science and engineering. Some of Winter’s students, Tish Scolnik, Mario Bollini, and Ben Judge, were eager to partake in a project that had an actual goal benefitting real people. Even past graduation, the team of students formed GRIT (Global Research Innovation & Technology), and have continued to be driven by the feedback they received while developing the since-named Leveraged Freedom Chair. The wheelchair is currently available in the US and being distributed in developing countries via aid groups.