CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts – For many of us, being able-bodied–that is, the state of having no physical or mental impairments that limit major life activities–is something we rarely have to stop and consider. Walking, talking, and engaging in everyday activities with ease is a privilege that non-disabled people take as a given, rather than an unearned benefit. Having a disability is made even more difficult for the global poor, who often have little access or means to receive healthcare.
The Leveraged Freedom Chair (LFC), a low-cost all-terrain wheelchair, is helping to solve the problem of limited mobility for people in developing nations. Inventor of the LFC, MIT professor Amos Winter, began working on this product in 2007, after noticing a gap in the medical technology market for low-cost wheelchair devices able to navigate through varying terrain in rural areas across the world.
Winter and the LFC team created four prototypes of the product, adapting its design between each model for environmental constraints such as rough terrain, high cost, and inability to repair the product. The team tested their models in East Africa, Guatemala, and India, using feedback from LFC riders to modify each prototype to serve best the needs of its users. In the end, they found that their final model is about 80 percent faster and 40 percent more efficient than a typical wheelchair in these countries, a major priority of the LFC riders.
In designing this device, Winter used the model of a traditional mountain bike as inspiration for the LFC. Designed simplistically, the LFC relies on the rider to carry out the device’s complex functions. It is hand-propelled using two levers on either side of the chair. The rider controls the chair’s motion by pushing the levers forward with his or her arms. Holding lower down on the lever provides for high speed and velocity on smoother terrain. Holding the levers higher up allows for greater torque on rougher terrain, mimicking the gear-switching function of mountain bikes. In this manner, LFC riders have control of the chair on any terrain on which they may need to travel.
To demonstrate the LFC’s user-centered design further, the chair is entirely composed of bicycle parts, which are often cheap and abundant in developing countries. This allows the LFC to be created locally and keeps the cost of creation low, enabling the chair to be sold for less than $200. This fee is often charity-funded. The design of the LFC using bicycle parts also allows for easy repair and maintenance of the device by any local bike mechanic.
While the LFC was originally designed for users in the developing world, its all-terrain features have sparked interest in the U.S. and Europe. In partnership with Massachusetts-based design and innovation consultancy firm, the Design Continuum, the LFC team has adapted its model to fit the needs of U.S. wheelchair riders. Named the LFC Sport, this model will be more advanced, sophisticated, lightweight, and likely more expensive. This model is set to be launched in the spring of 2014.
In his widely-viewed Ted talk, Amos Winter provides insight into the creation of LFC, saying, “The constrains on this design really pushed the innovation,” which led to the development of a fundamentally new product in a field that hasn’t changed in many years. Innovators like Winter are soon to make all the difference in these fields.
– Tara Young