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Free Wheelchair Mission
Jamais Cascio, 29 Jul 04

While "confined" is a verb often heard in reference to wheelchairs, for the mobility disabled, a wheelchair is a liberating tool. Unfortunately, it's a tool unavailable to millions of disabled poor around the world. Twenty five years ago, when mechanical engineer Don Schoendorfer saw a disabled Moroccan woman dragging herself across a dirt road with her one good arm, he asked himself a question: what would it take to build and ship simple, durable, and inexpensive wheelchairs for those in need in the developing world? The Free Wheelchair Mission was his answer to that question.

The free wheelchair idea is preposterously simple: with a cheap plastic patio chair, a couple of bicycle wheels, a couple of rugged casters, some steel tubing, and some bolts, you can build and ship a wheelchair anywhere in the world for under $42. For people injured by disease or war, a wheelchair can be a life-changing gift. The wheelchair is a compelling and useful design, elegantly executed.

What's more -- and what makes this particularly attractive to me -- is that the wheelchairs are not just free as in "gratis," they're free as in "libre," too. From the FAQ:

What if someone wants to copy your wheelchair design?
We encourage organizations to copy our design, or our passion. There are aspects of the design that we could patent, but doing so would hinder others from helping. We truly want to give a wheelchair to every human in need of one. That is a huge task, and we encourage anyone to help in any way.

In essence, these are open source wheelchairs for the world's poorest people. So far, they've shipped around 25,000 wheelchairs to over 30 different countries, and have a bold -- but not impossible -- plan to ship 20 million chairs by 2010. Of course, the more people who copy the design and the goal, the better.

(Note: Although the site and mission is run by a religious group, I found little on the site to bother those of us who are particularly sensitive to evangelical enthusiasm.)

(Further note: the site seems to have stopped responding. The URL is correct, but the link seems (temporarily, I presume) dead. I'll make a note of when it's back up. the site is now back up.)

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bad link

Posted by: dee on 30 Jul 04

Odd -- I cut & pasted those URLs, so they're the correct links, but the site isn't responding at all now.

I'll make a note of it, and also when it (eventually) comes back up.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 30 Jul 04

Dang, those resin chairs are everywhere!

Knocking these together could keep a lot of people busy.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 30 Jul 04

Love this.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 30 Jul 04



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