Open Source Wheelchair Design Aids Disabled in Developing Nations

by Ostatic Staff - Aug. 13, 2010

The needs of developing nations are great, but resources are few. The collaborative nature of open source design helps put everything from medical records to washing machines into the hands of people who need them most. Whirlwind Wheelchair International (WWI) relies on the same concept to improve the lives of disabled people in the developing world.

According to WWI and the World Health Organization, more than 20 million people in underdeveloped nations need a reliable wheelchair but don't have one. WWI, a California-based non-profit organization, has been designing wheelchairs for 30 years and licenses its drawing sets under a Creative Commons license so smaller wheelchair manufacturers can reproduce them at low cost.

Wheelchair riders themselves get in on the design action, too. "We welcome new collaborators into our network. Wheelchair riders from Vietnam recently suggested an anti-tip bar which is now in development. Local wheelchair riders are the best designers of chairs that are appropriate for their needs in their local environments," reads the company's Web site.

The wheelchairs sport design features unique to the needs of riders who must regularly get around on rough terrain. The rear wheels are made of bicycle tires that can easily be repaired or replaced, and the front wheels are specifically designed to not sink into sand, soil, or loose pavement. WWI also makes sure riders are well-equipped to service their own wheelchairs -- each one ships with a tire repair kit, pump, and detailed user manual.

The dignity a reliable, well-designed wheelchair affords a disabled person cannot be overestimated. As Orlando, a wheelchair rider in the Philippines says, "In this chair no one mistakes me for a beggar."