More than 30 years ago in Morocco, Don Schoendorfer and his wife Laurie saw a disabled woman dragging herself across the road, almost like a snake, using her fingernails to pull herself along. Schoendorfer remembers the disdain of the street beggars: The handicapped were considered even lower on the food chain than they were. The mental picture of the crawling woman’s anguish and loss of dignity haunted him and he decided to help.
Making the Cheapest Wheelchair
Barely awake, Don Schoendorfer stepped onto the cold cement floor of his garage at 4 a.m. Determined to create the world’s cheapest wheelchair, the Orange County, California, mechanical engineer squeezed in three hours every day before work, tinkering at a worktable he’d set up in his overstuffed garage.
First he tried a chair with a conventional canvas-like seat, but scrapped it as too expensive. He knew he needed something cheap and durable to the point of indestructible. The chair had to traverse mountains, swamps and deserts, and endure heat and frost with minor upkeep. Many of the world’s poor, Schoendorfer knew, live on less than $2 a day and could never dream of buying a Western-type wheelchair for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Finally, he hit on it: the ubiquitous white plastic lawn chair. Perfect. Schoendorfer scouted out sales, buying chairs by the dozen for $3 apiece. Then he wandered the aisles of The Home Depot and Wal-Mart in search of the most inexpensive bike tires, even the most cost-effective screws. Now, as he screwed two Toys “R” Us bike tires onto the chair, and welded on black metal casters and bearings, the MIT grad felt things come together…
“You’ve got a winner, Don,” Schoendorfer’s pastor declared when he saw the little white chair. In nine months Schoendorfer had made 100 wheelchairs, and his garage looked like a prosthetics rehabilitation center.
The pastor suggested they bring the whole lot of them on an upcoming church medical mission to India. But when Schoendorfer arrived at the first planning meeting, the missionaries in the group were less than impressed. “How much do you think shipping these chairs will cost?” one asked…
Finally, they agreed to let him bring four chairs to India. In an overcrowded medical ward outside Chennai, Schoendorfer saw a father carrying his disabled 11-year-old son. Here’s the moment, he thought. Schoendorfer ran outside and wheeled in the chair. From the moment the boy, Emmanuel, first sat down, Schoendorfer knew his invention had some power to heal. Emmanuel looked alternately stunned and overjoyed. His mother said in translation: “Bless you for this chariot.”
Since that first donation, Schoendorfer’s nonprofit organization, Free Wheelchair Mission has delivered more than 63,000 of the lightweight contraptions at no charge to people desperate for mobility. In the coming year, the mission plans to ship 100,000 more.
Today, the chairs are made in two Chinese factories and can be delivered anywhere in the world for just $41.17. They’ve been shipped to 45 countries — Angola, Zimbabwe, Mongolia, China, India, Peru, Fiji, as well as Iraq, where U.S. Marines passed them out to hundreds of civilians in 2004. With more than 100 million disabled poor in developing countries, Schoendorfer knows his work is far from done
What an inspiration Don is!
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