Video: Building the Mountain Bike of Wheelchairs

by Jay London on January 18, 2017 · 12 comments

in Alumni Life, Engineering, Health, Public Service, Research, Video

More than 20 million people in developing countries are in dire need of a wheelchair, many of them living in rural areas where access to goods, services, and health care require long-distance travel.

Assistant Professor Amos Winter SM ’05, PhD 11 began researching wheelchairs in developing countries during a trip to Tanzania in summer 2005, and he quickly realized that no existing chair could move fast and efficiently in rural areas.

“I talked to wheelchair users, disability advocacy groups, and wheelchair builder organizations and got a sense that there was a big gap in technology,” Winter says. “There wasn’t a product that would enable a person to go long distances on rough terrain but also be small enough to be used indoors. So those became the core requirements of the Leveraged Freedom Chair and the foundation of GRIT.”

In 2006, Winter started “Wheelchair Design in Developing Countries,” an Edgerton Center and D-Lab course that studied the operating environments of developing countries and then applied scientific and engineering knowledge to create solutions.

“I felt a demand from students who wanted to get involved with technology-based projects that would actually benefit people’s lives,” he says. “And I saw good opportunities to improve wheelchair technology through the innovative capabilities of MIT.”

Winter would teach the class for four years, and the all-terrain chair’s design developed over time, thanks in part to student research and significant user feedback. Originally using the gears of a mountain bike as a template, the wheelchair evolved to a three-wheel frame that used a simple lever system that was more cost-efficient and easier-to-repair.

Tish Scolnik (hat) and Amos Winter (right, blue shirt) were inspired to build a more rugged wheelchair after visits to Tanzania.

“We realized very early on that whatever we created had to be easy to maintain, even in a remote village, says Tish Scolnik ’10, who took the course as a first-year student and also conducted research in Tanzania. “When you push on the levers, you propel yourself forward. It gives you a lot more leverage, and it’s easier to go over obstacles.”

Scolnik and classmates Mario Bollini ’09, SM ’12 and Ben Judge ’11, MEng ’12 were part of a group that would continue to refine the wheelchair throughout their undergraduate time at MIT, building dozens of prototypes and conducting field trials in East Africa, Guatemala, India, and later, the United States.

“You could really see the difference that it was going to make in people’s lives and the little improvements that kept making the product even better,” Scolnik says. “It’s the feedback that we’re getting from people that are actually using the chair that made us want to keep doing it.”

Scolnik, Bollini, and Judge decided to continue to work on the since-named Leveraged Freedom Chair after their MIT graduations. Scolnik and Bollini co-founded the social enterprise startup GRIT (Judge is product development engineer) and the startup won the diamond award for social impact at the 2012 MassChallenge competition. GRIT’s work has also been supported by the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center and the D-Lab Scale-Ups fellowship program.

Since its founding, GRIT has been featured on CNN, the Wall Street Journal, TEDx, and the Boston Globe. Today, upgraded and base models of the Freedom Chair sell in the US, and a humanitarian version of the chair is available to developing countries and distributed via aid agencies and NGOs.

“It’s pretty amazing to be able to make a difference in someone’s life in your day-to-day job,” Judge says. “I think College Ben sitting at MIT doing a pset would give present-day Ben a big high-five.”

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark O'Donnell January 21, 2017 at 8:25 am

This is a great video. You are doing something that is really helping people. Thanks very much for “leveraging” your considerable talents for the service of others. You make me proud to be an MIT alumnus!

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Yung Liu January 21, 2017 at 9:39 am

Is there a model made of light-weight, high strength, easily assembled so that it can be transferred into a SUV?

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joseph folk January 21, 2017 at 11:27 am

Absolutely FANTASTIC! How can we get more publicity and more funding, private and gov’t, for such life-changing inventions? The young inventors in the video seemed so genuine, unlike many of us who are so concerned with our own wealth. “Our life on earth will soon be past; only what’s done for others will last.”

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Bob Lupton January 21, 2017 at 11:53 am

The Leveraged Freedom Chair looks like a winner…Great
It also looks like it gives the upper Torso and arms a great workout,
what more could you ask of a great idea.

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Cynthia Griffin January 21, 2017 at 5:28 pm

From one who has served in Ethiopia . . .
That your participants have physically become a part of the communities in
these countries, physically observed their “plight”, cannot help but transform
their own lives. Because of my experiencing African cultures, I no longer see
skin color; I see a person.
Your project is a win-win situation. Blessings to each of you.

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Cynthia Griffin January 21, 2017 at 5:33 pm

From one who has served in Ethiopia . . .
That your participants have physically become a part of the communities in these countries, personally observed their “plight”, cannot help but transform their own lives. Because of my experiencing African cultures, I no longer see skin color; I see a person.
Your project is a win-win situation. Blessings to each of you.

Reply

Dr. Deborah Gutterman January 21, 2017 at 9:33 pm

I received my PhD, 1996 under my maiden name Clayman. I sit in a wheelchair full time as I have multiple sclerosis. Granted, I do have a power wheelchair but even wheeling in this country, in New York City it is often not very easy. It sounds like you are all doing very good work but I have been waiting for 20 years for MIT to help in wheelchair design.

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Alberto P. Fenix, Jr. January 22, 2017 at 5:02 am

May I request for the drawings and specifications of this wheelchair? I would like to build them and give these to the poor and disabled people in the rural areas in the Philippines. I will do this as a non-profit social enterprise.
Alberto P. Fenix, Jr.
S.M. ’66 and Ph.D. ’68 Industrial Management

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WAHID GHALY January 23, 2017 at 12:59 am

Dear Young Inventors:
It is really moving to see you build such a wheel chair, congratulations.
Seems to me that at least part of the potential customers are poor people in different countries where there are no roads dedicated to the handicapped. I believe that, for that sector of customers, there are organizations with different backgrounds that can provide you with funding that subsidize in part the cost of that wheel chair so that you can sell it to the financially challenged people and still make a profit.
Wahid Ghaly
Ph.D., Aero Astro, 1986

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Eduardo Testart January 23, 2017 at 2:45 pm

Wonderfull!!

MIT Students and MIT could focus on this kind of needs for the real world where thousands and millions of people leave and have grate needs!! When I went to MIT to study I thought there were too many disable people everywhere… but finally I realized that the difference was on infrastructure and equipment’s. In my country, Chile most people who need such a chair, stay home!!

How can we do something together to introduce them here??

Best Regards

E. Testart MSc (Nu) 81

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Steven Zeitzew January 24, 2017 at 2:32 pm

Many wheelchair users propel with their feet, often going backwards. In addition to this type of lever power have you considered lower extremity powered mobility? Some wheelchair users have sufficient use of the lower extremities to benefit from that option.

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Simson L. Garfinkel January 25, 2017 at 1:02 am

Are these available in the US?

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