I wish I could tell you that I started working on wheelchairs in developing countries for some altruistic reason. I can’t. The truth is that I wanted to spend the summer of 2005 in Tanzania with my girlfriend … on MIT’s tab. She had been working there for the past year on international-development projects, and I couldn’t picture a better way to decompress after completing my master’s degree than spending the summer with her. Through the MIT Public Service Center (PSC) and D-Lab’s Amy Smith, I lined up a fellowship with Whirlwind Wheelchair International, a nonprofit in San Francisco that designs wheelchairs for use in developing countries, to assess the state of the technology in Tanzania.
After interviewing wheelchair users, manufacturers, and advocacy groups, I’ve found that only about 4 percent of Tanzanians who require wheelchairs actually have them. Worldwide figures are similarly shocking. But statistics alone can’t properly convey what the lack of mobility aids means for people in developing countries. I met children like James, who’d been stranded in his house for the first seven years of his life because his family was so ashamed of his club feet. I spoke to many people like Joseph, who yearned for an education but wasn’t physically capable of getting to school. I befriended guys like the Wonder Welders, polio survivors who make art from scrap metal. They had lived much of their lives on the streets without wheelchairs, forced to crawl through filth, often treated with contempt for having a disability.
Many of us toiling in our labs at MIT wonder how our efforts will be adapted and valued in the real world. In Tanzania, I saw that hand rims are inefficient for propelling a wheelchair on rough terrain. I saw how few designs take advantage of tough, cheap, ubiquitous bicycle parts. I saw that users of donated wheelchairs can’t assert the economic pressure to improve mobility aids. And I saw that small workshops aren’t profitable, because they can’t exploit economies of scale. Then it hit me that I had the background and resources to help–and that I’d stumbled on a fantastic engineering challenge with a potential impact many researchers only dream of finding. Not only could I work to improve the lives of tens of millions of people, but I could apply my experience in designing machines for harsh environments: I’ve worked in the oil, space, and underwater-robot industries, and my research focuses on efficiently burrowing through subsea soil.