Leveraged Freedom Chair, A “Little Angel Machine”

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According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, 20 million people in developing countries require wheelchairs.

Problematically, the wheelchairs available in developing countries are not designed for rough roads or the muddy walking paths that are often the only links to the community, school, and work.

Amos Winter, an assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT fixed this problem with his creation of the Leveraged Freedom Chair (LFC); an inexpensive, all-terrain, locally repairable wheelchair for developing countries.

Winter began examining wheelchair production in Third World countries in 2005 when he traveled to Tanzania on a public-service fellowship.

Winter talked to wheelchair users, manufacturers and disability groups in order to assess the state of wheelchair technology in Tanzania. He learned that there are two options for wheelchair users in Third World countries; the more common western hospital-style wheelchair and the Hand-Powered Tricycle.

Western wheelchairs function well on smooth surfaces, but lack easily replaceable parts, good posture support, and full functionality on rough terrain.

Hand-powered tricycles are ridden like a bike, but the user’s arms do the pedaling with a hand-crank that drives the chain. Hand-powered tricycles can speed quickly across smooth ground, but not rough terrain. The tricycles are also too big to use indoors.

All-terrain, posture-supportive and home-friendly wheelchairs are available in the U.S. and Europe. However, these can cost anywhere from $4,500 to $6, 500; a price range far too high for disabled wheelchair users in developing countries.

Winter realized that he needed to construct a wheelchair that was affordable—less than $200, locally repairable, small enough to fit in homes: through doorways, under tables and in bathrooms, and that could travel up to 5 kilometers a day on varied terrain.

Winter arrived at the finalized the product—the Leveraged Freedom Chair (LFC) after a year and a half of multiple test products that were tweaked on the basis of stakeholder and tester feedback.

Abdullah Munish, a Tanzanian spinal injury survivor was one of the early testers of the LFC in 2010.

“It is strong and stable in African terrain, and you can travel long distances and uphill without using too much energy,”Munish said. “I would say that we have [a]life saver … I just call it my little angel machine.”

The LFC has two levers hooked into a bicycle drive train on each side of the chair. A user simply needs to alter their hand position on the levers to speed up on flat ground or to create enough torque to travel over sand, through mud, or uphill.

The LFC was constructed from bicycle parts that can be found in developing countries.  Anyone with access to a hacksaw, welder, drill and vice can fix the wheelchair.

The U.N. Development program estimates that less than one percent of the need for wheelchairs in developing countries is being met, in part due to the inability of small workshop to build and repair wheelchairs quickly and easily. The ease of repairing the LFC should alter this stat for the better.

The Global Research Innovation and Technology (GRIT), a company established by Winter and run by two of his former students, is getting the LFC to the market.

To date, over 100 LFCs have been delivered to people in developing countries. GRIT has done a pilot distribution in India with 100 chairs, and a pilot in Haiti with 20 chairs. GRIT is ready to produce 500 each month and intends to deliver 1,200 within the next few years.

– Kasey Beduhn

Source: Smart Planet, MIT News
Photo: Idea Connection

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