Don Schoendorfer was vacationing in Morocco years ago when he saw a disabled woman drag herself across a dirt road, ignored by the crowds and barely evading traffic. Schoendorfer later learned that in developing countries, an estimated 100 million disabled people need wheelchairs but cannot afford them. These disabilities are due to many causes, including disease, lack of immunizations and medical attention, armed conflict, and injuries.
Unable to forget the Moroccan woman’s struggle, Schoendorfer resolved to do something about it.
A mechanical engineer and inventor, he decided to devote his life to providing “the transforming gift of mobility.” His answer: create a basic, low-cost, reliable wheelchair to “reach the highest number of disabled impoverished people in the shortest possible amount of time.” Aiming to use existing, commonly available supplies, Schoendorfer combined the durability of a plastic lawn chair with a steel frame and a pair of sturdy mountain bike tires, among other parts.
To manufacture and distribute these wheelchairs, Schoendorfer founded Free Wheelchair Mission, a nonprofit organization based in Irvine, Calif. Since 2001, the Mission has shipped wheelchairs to more than 80 developing countries across the globe, where they are assembled by local partners and distributed to the needy. The total cost to manufacture and deliver the wheelchair to remote corners of the globe? About 64 dollars. The cost to the recipient? Zero dollars.
The well-known plastic lawn chair created the foundation for the wheelchair. Made with rugged polypropylene plastic, the chair can comfortably accommodate people of various sizes. And it met Schoendorfer’s requirements: “waterproof, durable, drillable, comfortable, washable, simple to locate and easy to manufacture.” Tires needed to be tough and durable to “allow the wheelchair to traverse uneven, rocky, muddy terrain,” so he chose 24-inch inflatable mountain bike tires. (Most bike tires actually are made with various plastics and elastomers, such as nylon and butyl rubber.) These heavy-duty tires can be repaired fairly easily, if needed—and a plastic tire patch kit and bicycle pump are included with the wheelchair. A pair of eight-inch plastic castor wheels on the front of the chair enables steering. The tubular steel frame holds these and the other parts together.
The wheelchair also is equipped with a polypropylene plastic footplate that can be adjusted based on the recipient’s size and disability, along with a plastic foam cushion to help prevent pressure sores caused by long episodes of sitting.
Schoendorfer recently designed a “second generation” wheelchair that is more customizable to accommodate a variety of users, including children and those with special medical needs.
With a staff of 24 and more than 2,000 volunteers worldwide, Free Wheelchair Mission has given “the gift of mobility” to more than 620,000 needy people.