There is no doubt that independent mobility makes a huge difference to the quality of life of a person with a disability.
Across the world the World Health Organisation estimates that there are around 52 million people who need a wheelchair but cannot access one that meets their needs.
Wheelchair user Rachael Wallach was backpacking around India and South East Asia when she first thought of trying to create the first open source wheelchair.
“I was really shocked to discover how many people need a wheelchair but do not have access to one that meets their needs,” Rachael said.
“In order to give independence and freedom a wheelchair must be fully customised to the body, lifestyle and environment of its user. With traditional design, manufacturing and distribution this comes at a prohibitive price,” she said.
In developing countries, if someone is able to access to a wheelchair it has typically been mass-produced and imported. It might have a few adjustable features but it will not have been fully customised, which limits their freedom and independence.
So, in a true display of innovation and determination, Rachael is developing #HackOnWheels, which aims to enable all wheelchair users, wherever they are, to access a wheelchair that has been fully customised to meet their individual needs.
“#HackOnWheels is the movement to create the first open source wheelchair. Crowd sourced design challenges from wheelchair users will put the wheelchair user at the heart of the design process,” Rachael said.
“An online library of open source wheelchair designs, with a platform that enables online design collaboration, will drive innovation in the market. A design code for open source wheelchair designs in the online library will ensure that designs can be made from standard parts that are easily to obtain, making it easier and cheaper for wheelchair users to repair their wheelchairs,” she said.
UK-based Rachael said that even in well-resourced settings fully customised manual wheelchairs typically cost around £3000 ($US 4,300) and motorized wheelchairs start at around £10,000 ($US 14,200). There are also issues around quality and reparability.
“Even when people do have access to a wheelchair that has been customised to meet their needs, I have yet to meet someone who has not been affected by the huge financial burden of buying one, or someone who feels their wheelchair meets all of their needs – because most wheelchair users just aren’t involved in the design process,” Rachael said.
“Manufacturers typically use specialist components that can only be bought from them, so if a wheelchair breaks it can be an expensive and long-winded process to acquire the spare parts needed to fix it,” she said.
Rachael’s solution was inspired by an organisation called e-NABLE who created and shared an open source design for a functional prosthetic hand that can be 3D printed for less than $50 using a domestic 3D printer.
“When I was on holiday in Jordan I visited the NGO Refugee Openware and they showed me a prosthetic hand that they had made for a Syrian boy who had lost his fingers in the conflict. I asked whether anyone was doing anything similar with wheelchairs and they said they weren’t,” Rachael said.
Since June 2016 #HackOnWheels has had a professional residency at the Machines Room, a maker space in London that is part of the Maker Network. This residency is part funded by the British Council.
“#HackOnWheels is currently seeking seed funding. To date our ‘Hackathons’ and other events have been hosted by corporate sponsors. Speakers and participants have donated their time. We’re all volunteering, whether that’s by writing blogs or designing the first open source wheelchair component files,” Rachael said.
“We need funding to engage and grow our community of wheelchair users, makers, designers and hackers, to incentivise designs through design challenges, to administer the library and to enable designs in the library to be prototyped,” Rachael said.
What started as a gem of an idea in Rachael’s head is now growing into a global movement.
“What inspires me is that when people hear about #HackOnWheels and the problem that we’re trying to solve they want to get involved. I’ve been contacted by people literally all over the world who want to help. And the people who have come to our ‘Hackathons’ have given their time, energy, and ideas for free,” Rachael said.
“It’s their commitment and creativity that will help make the #HackOnWheels vision a reality and that’s incredibly inspiring,” she said.