Wheelchair for the developing world: cheap, rugged and easy to maintain

Core77's case-study of the MIT Mobility Lab's "Leveraged Freedom Chair" is a fascinating look at the difficulties presented by designing a sustainable wheelchair for use by disabled people in the developing world. The final product can be sold for $100 -- a 90 percent reduction off traditional wheelchairs -- and uses a lever-driven propulsion system that works better over rough terrain. It uses bicycle parts to keep costs down and simplify maintenance.

Case Study: Leveraged Freedom Chair, by Amos Winter and Jake Childs


  1. There’s already a market for this in the US… oh, wait… Affordable? Sustainable? God forbid: practical?! It’ll never happen here.

    Great creation for the rest of the globe tho.

    1. “There’s already a market for this in the US”

      I can see the spots on Oprah and Jerry already…

      Have you injured your elbow or suffered wrist strain while operating a “Leveraged Freedom Chair”???
      YOU may be eligible to receive FINANCIAL COMPENSATION!!
      Call 1-800-SUETHEBASTARDS today!!!!

      So buy one now, they won’t be on the market long.

  2. Very awesome! Here is another, related effort: “Personal Energy Transportation Project creates low cost, hand cranked vehicles to those in need in developing countries. Since 1995, P.E.T. has delivered thousands of homemade wheelchairs to over 80 countries.

  3. i feel bad complaining about someone doing this kind of good work, but $100 really is still a fortune in much of the “developing world”

    1. “$100 really is still a fortune”

      Like the $100 laptop this kind of equipment is supposed to be donated by institutions to poor people that can’t afford it. Since the link was 404 I can only guess that the design would also be released as open source for any poor handyman to build from scrap parts.

  4. I like the use of bicycle parts, and the affordability and ruggedness of it. I wonder how the beam that leads to the front wheel would work out? It seems like for a disabled person, it would be in the way. You climb into the seat and then have to lift your disable leg up over that high beam to place it on the foot rest. Looks a little awkward.

    Other than that, I like this wheelchair a lot.

    1. If the design is simple enough it could be easily made by a bike mechanic with a welding torch from junk parts.

    2. I agree about the center beam being very awkward, if not impossible, for someone to negotiate over. My father-in-law uses a wheelchair most of the time, and he would easily be tripped-up on that beam. Ingress and egress would be highly problematic for him.

      Looking at the design, I think it’s obvious that the extended beam also acts as a counterweight, to keep the chair from tipping backwards too easily. Most wheelchairs have extensions in the back that act to stop wheeling over backwards. That extended beam also effectively doubles the space the chair requires for storage.

      The core77 link to the story is now gone, btw.

  5. That’s a neat idea and all but until the developing world fixes the streets, sidewalks and overall accessibility issues this idea is about as dumb as a paste sandwich. For example in Bogotá you would have to have a real death wish to try to use a wheel chair to get around. Between the massive potholes, foot-high curbs and total lack of ramps to most buildings there is virtually no way to use a wheelchair. I unfortunately have no better idea on how to improve the design or help its intended recipients, aside from fixing the horrid infrastructure problems first.

    1. I don’t doubt that there are plenty of places the LCF chair would still be unable to get to, but this video of tests in Guatemala certainly suggests that it would be considerably more maneuverable than conventional wheelchairs.

      Dismissing this as “about as dumb as a paste sandwich” strikes me as more than a little snotty–I don’t think the inventors are charging into this project with the starry-eyed notion that their invention will magically fix everything. The LCF strikes me as far more practical than suggesting that until developing counties totally revamp their infrastructure, disabled people should more or less stay stuck at home.

      1. Actually seeing it in action I would have to agree that it is a big improvement and seems more usable over rough terrain and six-inch curbs in moderately urban places. Having said that though I still contend that in a very urban environment this chair would only get you so far. I have seen curbs in South America that were almost 2 feet high, grades that even this able-bodied person finds daunting and potholes (in both the street and the sidewalk) that would swallow small cars. Let’s not even get into the question of traffic and mass transit (in Bogotá this might get you on the Transmilenio but any other bus not by a damn sight).

        I am not, however, saying that disabled persons should be stuck at home. Far from it in fact. But infrastructure problems of this scale are a symptom of a far bigger problem that will take a little more than a fancy wheelchair to fix(which I am sure the LFC people know anyway).

        As for the fancy wheelchair, that actually looks like fun and at the risk of sounding crass I kind of want one now.

    2. You’re completely right that much of the infrastructure in the developing world is not especially wheelchair accessible, particularly in big cities with no ramps, tall curbs, lots of traffic, etc. but a wheelchair can still make a life-changing difference, especially if someone’s disability limits their ability to use their upper body as well (crutches aren’t an option). I know a girl here in Peru who, prior to getting a wheelchair, spent pretty much the entire first 18 years of her life sitting in the dirt at her house, having urinary tract infections from sitting on the ground so much and not attending school (she’s completely functional mentally but illiterate and sheltered) because she couldn’t very well drag herself and her family didn’t consider helping her move around a priority. Obviously, she’s far from independent even with the chair moving toward an economical wheelchair design will help people like her get their first chair earlier in life and drastically raise their quality of life.

  6. We need that here, not in the “developing world”. How many disabled people in the US can really afford the $10,000 that wheelchairs sell for over here?

    In general, why are we pretending that everything is hunky-dory in the US and that the only people who need help are those poor, benighted people in the “developing world”?

  7. They could sell this 200$ here, not using the health care mafia channels. That would help a lot of people and, with the profits, allow to help a lot more people abroad.

    As for design, tires filled with air have little rolling advantages, at wheelchair speeds, and a lot of disadvantages, like punctures and anticipated price of tires and tubes and pump, even more so over time.

    1. While the tires don’t have the “rolling advantage,” they do have one big advantage — bicycles are everywhere. So, the parts are very cheap, and these chairs can be repaired at a regular bike shop. That wouldn’t be the case for other kinds of wheels. The idea of this team was to work with the materials that would be readily available in the majority of the countries they’re wanting to make these for. I believe their long-term goal is to show people how to make these out of locally-found materials, so they can make (and repair) their own.

  8. Feels like a slight retread of a recumbent bicycle. I am wondering if the person in question would be better served by one. To me, it is not a total engineering win here, there is much more here if only someone looks further.

  9. I’ve actually seen a guy up in Chicago who tools around on one of these (I don’t know if it’s the same brand) between Uptown and Margate Park.

    Don’t know where he’s going, or where he’s been, but he’s often in the bicycle lane because he sure does move fast!

    1. Don’t know where he’s going, or where he’s been, but he’s often in the bicycle lane because he sure does move fast!

      Thats more likely a racing wheelchair. Probably a lot lighter, more expensive and less rugged than the one featured here.

  10. If this was sold like the OLPC, where I pay double in order to get one and ship a second one to someone in need in a developing nation, I would gladly buy one. If these move from theoretical to actually available, please post telling me how to get one.

    I’m sure I’m far from the only “developed nation” customer willing to buy one at a premium.

  11. Thanks for the link–that’s just incredibly exciting to see that the manufacture of the “first world” version is going to subsidize production of the simpler, utilitarian version in the developing world. I also found this link to the project’s homepage, with additional photos and videos here. While it may not be the perfect solution for all people with disabilities in all developing areas–it can’t overcome awful infrastructure, as CastanhasDoPara points out–it certainly appears to be a huge improvement over what’s currently out there. Truly a wonderful thing!

  12. 90% reduction off conventional wheelchairs? Uh, no. A quick look at shopping.google.com finds a lot of basic wheelchairs in the $100-150 range, and you should be able to make one cheaper in the third world using bicycle parts. Powered wheelchairs start at around $400, better ones around $1000, and this lever-driven design looks like a potentially useful intermediate, giving people more mobility and power than a traditional chair because it’s using big simple arm motions instead of grabbing the wheels by hand, and it probably does a better job getting over obstacles with the long front extension.

  13. Considering the millions crippled by land mines and machetes in the horrifying wars of the last few decades… the net common good possible for projects like this is breathtaking.

    On a purely selfish note, when I hear some bobblehead refer to the likes of hedge fund scam artists as our best and brightest, I always think of the kind of people doing this work. Or the gentleman who built a power generating windmill in his village, or Dean Kamen’s team inventing water purification systems, or even Bill Gates giving a little back by vaccinating the world, or eliminating Guinea Worm.

    It’s like a unicorn chaser for my misanthropy urges.

  14. One of the most frustrating(and costly) things about being a wheelchair user is the maintenance. when the parts on my chair go wrong, everything has to be ordered through a ‘certified dealer’ down to the screws. It’s all proprietary and it is a nightmare when anything stops working properly.

    To have a chair that I could find parts for and fix myself would be a dream, and I’m in the US. Instead, say when my caster bearings rust out, I have to get a repair RX from my dr. who sends it to the dealer, who puts the order out to the company that built my chair, who ships it, and then wait for the tech to find time to come out to my home and make the swap. But if I could fix it myself from parts found in local shops, all those ppl and companies would lose revenue. Healthcare reform, anyone???

    How I wish I could “jailbreak” my very own wheelchair.

    This is a great idea. Thanks for posting.

    1. I would try and find someone mechanically handy, preferably with access to (small) shop or garage tools. Especially for screws and whatnot: weird diameters can be retapped, weird lengths can be sawed down from bigger ones.

      Is it motorized?

      1. oh believe me when I tell you I know plenty handy toolbelts, but the parts are extremely specialized and you just can’t get them. and they are prone to break, constantly, if you want to be active. my father is a master builder/carpenter etc, and tools are definitely not the problem. but I live alone, in a rural area, and so I have to be fluent in these things. independent living and whatnot. we’ve even considered working with our local fabricators from time to time, but by that point we end up calling uncle and dealing with the regular channels. one can only take so much…

        but I appreciate the thought :) it is manual.

        I am lucky that the dealer’s mechanic is wonderful and takes the time to teach me as much as possible.

        1. Well, when you really get down to it, a manual wheelchair is a fairly simple mechanical device.

          The simpler (and cheaper) option in the long run might be to just make a new one, that’s serviceable.

          Plus, you can make it look as cool as you want to.

    2. Huh, that sort of uhh.. sucks. I’m sorry, it really shouldn’t be so hard to fix something you own. Proprietary medical supplies have to be about the dumbest thing I can think about right now. People complain about DRM and iPwned screws but this is something that really, REALLY bothers me. I know I was all, “this thing is dumb as a paste sandwich” a few posts ago (and for its intended market it still is, to a degree) but now that you mention it, this actually makes a lot of sense (for folks with access to decent infrastructure and an ADA). Whatever the case, I fully support the idea that you should be able to get whatever parts you need at a fair price and not have to jump through a bunch of ridiculous hoops to do so. And to that end I hope projects like this actually take off and we can get the profiteers out of this market (which may lead to ousting the profiteers from every market, how about that for a long term goal. Just spit-ballin’.)

      Viva la revolucion (en ambos sentidos.)

      1. I think your anger is well-founded (re: lack of ADA, curbs etc). but the thing about projects like these, who get the attention of someone like cory who then posts it to BB – at the very least, it has now created a dialogue where it didn’t exist before, and that’s one tiny little step towards creating social change.

        “Viva la revolucion (en ambos sentidos.)”

        second that.

  15. There is a charity Free Wheelchair Mission that makes modified wheelchairs for the developing world out of premolded plastic chairs and their chairs cost $59.20. They’ve already given away 558,000 chairs.

  16. A few years ago, I worked as a volunteer at PROJIMO, a cooperative of people with spinal injury, many quadriplegic, in a village in Northern Mexico, founded by David Werner some 30 years ago. They have a workshop where they create wheelchairs and other tools from scratch, welding and designing, in a process that involves the user of the tool intimately. One of the big problems is that there are very few child-friendly wheelchairs, so children are stuck with too large wheelchairs, which further exacerbates the problem.

    David Werner has written a number of books about his work on affordable and empowering health technology in the developing world, with beautiful illustrations – very inspiring, and all are available for free at his website in English and Spanish: http://www.healthwrights.org/hw/books

  17. My Nigerian partner, Ayuba Gufwan, who walks on his hands from polio, and I, build a somewhat similar wheelchair in Nigeria. There is more polio in Nigeria than anywhere in the world. Tens of thousands of children and adults spend their lives crawling on the ground. Rotary International, the Gates Foundation and other donors have given hundreds of millions for polio eradication, which is absolutely wonderful, but very little is being done to help the victims. We have our own shop in Jos, Nigeria, with 21 employees (5 are disabled themselves) where we build a 3-wheeled, self pedaled “tricycle” out of bicycle parts for $150. So far we have built and donated over 3500 wheelchairs in 17 of Nigeria’s 36 states, which is far, far more than any other organization is doing in Nigeria, which is a country half the population of the US. You can watch a 4 minute video with an overview of our work at http://www.WheelchairsforNigeria.org.

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