Breaking New Ground: Rugged MIT Wheelchair Brings Mobility to Developing World

Leveraged Freedom Chair

After suffering a spinal cord injury when he fell from a tree, Ashok, from Jaipur, India, had to close down his tailoring shop because he couldn’t push his wheelchair across the rough terrain between his home and his business.

Ashok’s story is similar to many across rural India and Africa, Central America, and parts of Southeast Asia. In the developing world there are 40 million people who need a wheelchair but don’t have one, while others have practically useless chairs not suited for harsh terrain.

This is a problem MIT mechanical engineer Amos Winter hopes to solve. In 2005 he traveled to Tanzania to get a close-up look at the issues facing physically disabled men and women in rural areas, and from that visit the idea for the Leveraged Freedom Chair (or the LFC) took shape.

While in the United States it’s normal to find wheelchair-accessible buildings, streets and transportation, in developing countries this is a rarity and wheelchair-bound individuals are left to fend for themselves.

To make matters worse, people living in rural areas often have to travel many miles over uneven terrain—rocks, grass, mud, sand, and up and down hills—in order to get to their jobs, attend school, visit family or keep a doctor’s appointment. Under these conditions traditional wheelchairs are hard to use, break often and are difficult to repair.

Winter’s LFC design is based on a mountain bike concept where a gear train allows the user to shift into a lower gear, creating more torque for climbing a hill or traveling through mud or sand.

There are already several mountain-bike-come-wheelchair designs on the market in the U.S., but the price tag ranges from $4,000 on up, way too expensive for a developing-world market. From the get-go Winter knew his wheelchair had to come in under $200 as well as being able to withstand five kilometers of travel per day over various terrains.

His wheelchair also had to be locally repairable, using local tools, materials and knowledge so that it could be sourced, built and repaired literally anywhere in the world.

Winter’s design is genius in its simplicity. By using two simple levers attached to the wheels of the chair a person can either grasp near the top of the levers and pump up and down for greater torque across tough terrain, or hold the levers further down and close to pivots across flat or easier surfaces. Human mechanics are what makes this design work, no need for complicated mechanisms and parts.

And the LFC can easily move inside because its levers detach and stow. The wheelchair is small enough to fit through doorways and low enough to sit at a table.

Winter took his final design to Guatemala to test it on some of the toughest terrain he could find, studying how much effort and energy it took users to navigate across that terrain. The results were pretty amazing. He found that the LFC was about 80 percent faster and 40 percent more efficient than a regular wheelchair, and produced 50 percent higher torque from the levers.

In field tests in India 90 percent of trial participants chose to discard their old wheelchairs and adopt the LFC.

Winters is working with Boston-based Continuum and other stakeholders to bring the LFC to both developing and first-world nations. LFC production for the developing world is being coordinated by Global Research Innovation Technology (GRIT), an MIT spin-off that is currently producing LFCs for Guatemala and India with the goal of producing 1,000 chairs a month. Indian manufacturer Pinnacle Industries started making the LFC for the Indian market last summer.

And as for Ashok, the day after receiving his LFC, he propelled himself to his shop and reopened it. He’s now busy filling new orders for school uniforms and is once again independent and able to provide for himself and his family.

Photo: 2010-guate-DSC_20209 by Mario Bollini on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

About Nancy Pardo

Nancy Pardo is a Seattle-based writer and editor. She holds an MA in Professional Writing. She began her career as a Washington DC-area reporter, moving on to become an editor and contributor for several top industry magazines in the U.S. and the Middle East. Nancy currently works for PTC as content marketing director and manages the company's award-winning blog Product Lifecycle Stories.
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