The 365 Ways Blog

Michael Norton is author of "365 Ways to Change the World", which provides an issue for each day of the year, interesting facts, inspiring case studies of people doing things to address the issue and ideas for action. Originally published in the UK, versions with local content have been published in Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and the USA. To find out more visit our website:

13 August 2007

Wheelchairs for people with disabilities

It is quite hard to get accurate statistics on the impact of disability in the developing world, but the following give some indication of the problem:
1. The United Nations Statistical Office estimates there are 20 million people in the world who need a wheelchair but don't have one. 

2. The World Health Organisation estimates that the average life expectancy of a paraplegic in a developing country is between 2-3 years. In the UK life expectancy for a paraplegic is normal.
3. The World Health Organisation suggests that between 20-40 people per million of the population will sustain a spinal cord injury in one year, many of whom will require the use of a wheelchair
4. Scope, the UK charity for those with cerebral palsy, suggests that 1 in 400 people worldwide have cerebral palsy. 

5. The Mines Advisory Group suggests that 26,000 people are killed or maimed by land mines each year.

Here are two inspirational initiatives for providing more people with wheelchairs.

Wheelchairs from old plastic and recycled bike parts
The Free Wheelchair Mission makes wheelchairs from plastic patio chairs, a steel frame, and some mountain bike tires to deliver FREE to those that are disabled in third world countries who could otherwise not afford a wheelchair (and who are most likely crawling around on their hands for the purposes of mobility). With over 100,000,000 disabled poor people throughout the developing world,
Free Wheelchair Mission has its work cut out. You may be surprised to learn how easy it is for you to help. START YOUR OWN MISSION! Host a fundraising event to buy wheelchairs OR SPONSOR a shipment of wheelchairs. The cost to manufacture and deliver a wheelchair worldwide is just $44.90. Over 240,000 wheelchairs have now been distributed to date.

Distribution of the wheelchairs is organised via distribution partner organisations. If you want to become a distribution partner or know of an organisation able to take on this role, here are some facts to consider:
• The distribution partner should have previous experience in importing containers, or be working with another organization that does.
• The wheelchairs are given at no cost to the poorest of the poor, without discrimination, and the recipients must need a wheelchair for mobility but should not already have a wheelchair.
• A wheelchair cannot be given individually unless it is bought and transported to a developing country (usually by an individual who is traveling and would like to gift someone with a wheelchair).
• Wheelchairs come in ocean or land containers containing 550 units.

Flatpack wheelchairs
David Constantine was on a holiday to Australia when he dived into water which was just three feet deep. 
He would never walk again. But rather than let the accident destroy him, David decided to devote the rest of his life to helping other people with disabilities.

With two friends, David set up Motivation in 1991, a charity based near Bristol with the aim of changing the lives of people across the globe. Their latest project is a revolutionary flat-pack wheelchair, the Worldmade Wheelchair, which is cheap to make, easy to assemble and, crucially, fully adjustable for each individual. 

It’s a chair designed for rugged third-world terrain – and is making a huge difference to the lives of disabled people.

Most wheelchairs that are designed for use in developed countries where there is generally a good infrastructure for wheelchair users are often inappropriate for conditions in developing countries, particularly rural areas where many disabled live. They are also unaffordable to many who need them. It is estimated that there are over 20 million people in developing and low income nations that need a wheelchair but don’t have one.

The concept of mass producing a range of flat pack wheelchairs helps keep the costs down and means the wheelchairs can be tailored to the individual’s requirements when assembled. The first wheelchair is specifically designed for use in rural areas – with three wheels to provide stability on rough terrain. During 2006 3,000 were produced which will increase to 10,000 per year by 2008. They are being supplied in Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Papua New Guinea and South Africa. Work is also underway to design and produce a wheelchair for people living in urban areas.

Motivation has also established the ‘Fit for Life’ course to ensure partner organisations receive training in prescribing and assembling the wheelchairs correctly and provide the right support and training to wheelchair users.

The wheelchairs cost around $150 (£86), a fraction of the average wheelchair in the UK which costs upwards of £1,000.