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A Serendipitous Passion

How a Public Service Center fellowship got me hooked on international development.

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.

Amos Winter tried out a Tanzanian tricycle before his class designed a two-speed gear train for it.

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.

I soon realized that while I could make a dent in the problem, much more could be accomplished with the help of other students. So in spring 2007, I introduced the MIT class Wheelchair Design in Developing Countries (WDDC). We work with partners in target countries to define class projects, taking into account conditions such as the terrain where the wheelchairs will be used; the local availability of parts, materials, and skilled labor; and the purchasing power of people who make around a dollar per day. Students then develop prototypes in collaboration with our partners and U.S. and European mobility experts. And to make sure class projects don’t sit on the shelf at the end of the semester, WDDC and the PSC offer summer fellowships to send students to the partners’ workshops, where they help test and refine the technologies they’ve developed. In 2007, alumni support helped five students spend the summer in Africa through the PSC. This year we have funding to send seven students to Africa and Southeast Asia.

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Limited access to wheelchairs is just one problem that could use the ingenuity of MIT students: tuberculosis, malaria, lack of clean water, and inhalation of cooking-fire smoke all plague a huge fraction of the world’s popu­lation. What better way to spend my time than to tackle such problems and inspire the next generation of engineers to do the same? Even if students initially have less than altruistic reasons for being drawn to my course (or to other international­-­development opportunities available through the PSC, D-Lab, and the IDEAS competition), it’s part of my job to help show them how much of the world exists beyond the Infinite, and how much power they have to make it better.

PhD candidate Amos Winter, SM ‘05, is a researcher in the Hatsopoulos Microfluids Laboratory Hosoi Research Group and the Precision Engineering Research Group.

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