Students design wheelchair for developing nations

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

Wheelchairs greatly improve the quality of life for people in developing countries.

Have you ever seen a person in a wheelchair open a door with the push of a button, or get into a building with a ramp? It’s not too difficult, since many buildings have handicap features to make it as easy as possible. In developing countries, however, it’s difficult to maneuver in the rocky streets and muddy, unpaved roads. Throw in steep slopes and worn-down chairs, and moving around is just downright dangerous. Graduate students Erik Ohlson and Christian Bremer knew they could design better chairs for disabled people in developing countries, so they contacted a company in San Francisco, California called Whirlwind Wheelchair International to build one together.

After four weeks of hard work, they created the Walter. Simple changes in its design provided an ease of use that greatly improved the wheelchair. Walter’s flexible seat locks in a forward position, so a person can avoid slipping when they get out of the chair to get into a bed or on a couch. This feature also makes it easier for someone to roll uphill by balancing their weight and reducing the risk of falling backwards. The chair’s steel frame will make it more durable and the large, rubber wheel makes the chair rugged in snow, mud, and sand.

Ohlson and Bremer tested the first prototype of the Walter on several people in Indonesia, one of whom was a woman named Sri. When she was 23 years old, she got into a horrible motorcycle accident that left her unable to walk. Since Sri didn’t have a wheelchair, she hasn’t been able to leave her house for 10 whole years. “There are many people like Sri in developing countries. If they are offered the opportunity to leave their homes with a wheelchair designed for the local context, a whole new world opens up – it might even lead to a job,” says Ohlson.

The Walter design has received a lot of praise, and the graduate students won the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America Student Design Competition (what a mouthful) in June 2013. As of now, Ohlson and Bremer are raising money to provide more people in developing nations with wheelchairs.

Images courtesy of Christian Bremer and Erik Ohlson.