Free Wheelchair Mission Helps Transform Lives


SEATTLE — According to the World Health Organization, approximately 18 percent of people who live in lower or middle-income countries have some form of disability. Because access to proper healthcare in developing countries can be a challenge, disabilities can profoundly affect ability to gain education and employment.

Around the world, 70 million people have a disability that necessitates the use of a wheelchair and cannot afford one. This adds another dimension to the picture of global poverty – persons with disabilities are disproportionately affected.

Free Wheelchair Mission is a nonprofit organization that provides free wheelchairs to disabled persons in places where they may not have adequate healthcare. The Borgen Project spoke with founder Don Schoendorfer to gain a greater appreciation of the organization’s efforts to make a positive change. Schoendorfer was in Morocco when he first saw the extent of global poverty. As a woman dragged herself across the ground, unable to walk or crawl, a simple solution came to mind: a wheelchair. Thus, the idea for Free Wheelchair Mission came to life.

Since its founding in 2001, Free Wheelchair Mission has equipped people in the developing world with no-cost wheelchairs. The faith-based nonprofit aims to produce at least 100,000 wheelchairs every year. Free Wheelchair Mission persists through donations from individuals as well as from charitable organizations and churches. The organization, based in Orange County, provides wheelchairs to different partners in developing nations who then distribute wheelchairs to people in those countries. FWM also equips partners with training on how to assemble the wheelchairs and replaces wheelchairs after recipients outgrow them.

A Simple Solution

Although Schoendorfer was working as a biomedical engineer and did not have any prior experience in occupational therapy, after seeing the woman in Morocco, he knew that he could find a solution for her struggle. A wheelchair seemed like a simple solution for the lack of mobility. Wheelchairs, however, can come at a high cost for those who already do not have the resources.

In order to mitigate this problem, Schoendorfer worked for more than a year to develop the wheelchair’s frame and shop around for different parts. The design consists of the steel frame, large tires, a pair of castors and a plastic lawn chair. This simple design allows the wheelchair to be produced and distributed at a cost of only $80.

Fieldwork to Nonprofit Work

Originally, Schoendorfer wanted to use the wheelchairs for research purposes. He would distribute them, review their effectiveness after a year, then write a research paper for a scientific journal. The original run resulted in 100 wheelchair; four were distributed while he was on a mission trip in India. Nevertheless, after the first four, Schoendorfer did not stop. Seeing how transformational the experiences were for the recipients motivated him to continue producing wheelchairs. In 2017, Free Wheelchair Mission is still growing.

The Impact of a Wheelchair

Free Wheelchair Mission’s reach extends all over the world, most notably Vietnam, India, China, Peru and the Philipines. Their wheelchairs’ durable design allows for use on flat to rugged land, and for people with moderate to severe disability. Since its beginning, the organization has donated more than 1,000,000 wheelchairs to people across 93 countries.

Schoendorfer emphasized that the organization’s success illustrates how people in the U.S. can help others one step at a time. The recipients of these wheelchairs now have the ability to attain opportunities they may not have had been able to. Furthermore, these wheelchairs will eventually enable people to lead, teach and inspire in their own communities. “The people in these wheelchairs will be noticed … and the people around them will notice that they are not unequal to [able-bodied people],” Schoendorfer says.

By helping disabled persons in communities around the world, the Free Wheelchair Mission helps fight against global poverty. When asked what he visualized for the future of the organization, Schoendorfer affirmed that as long as there was a need, Free Wheelchair Mission would continue providing wheelchairs. “We are starting the battle with a wheelchair, and it’s just the first step.”

Selasi Amoani
Photo: Flickr


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