Employing user-centered design hasn’t exactly been easy for Global Research Innovation & Technology (GRIT), a social enterprise startup that emerged out of the MIT Mobility Lab last year. The team has created a rugged wheelchair with detachable levers that can make it move faster with less effort on the part of the user.
The design challenge? The end users of the MIT engineering students’ project were living with disabilities in developing countries thousands of miles away.
“In a lot of places, the roads are really terrible, so if you have a hospital wheelchair, you can’t necessarily go anywhere in it,” said Mario Bollini, the chief technology officer of GRIT. Incidentally, many of these countries also have high disability rates.
This predicament necessitated three years’ worth of summer trips to Kenya, Guatemala, East Africa and India to test the chair, redesign it and then do it all over again. But it’s a good thing they took those trips because, according to Bollini, today’s market-ready version of the chair looks almost nothing like the original version.
“We scrapped most of the other parts of the chair after first testing abroad and went with the simplest thing we could think of,” he said. “We literally welded an office chair to wheels to test the levers and that actually worked really well.”
The removable levers give the user a way to propel the chair farther across rugged terrain. But they’re removable, so the chair can be used like a traditional wheelchair inside.
GRIT has just completed a pilot test of 100 Leveraged Freedom Wheelchairs in India and is working on the manufacturing component. “Right now, (the cost) is $200 to $250 per chair, depending on the quantity,” Bollini said. “As we scale up, that price will go down, but in most places that’s still way too much for a person with a disability to pay.”
So for now, the startup is working with nonprofits and charities that buy and donate wheelchairs to developing countries. The design and development work has been completed with about $250,000 in grant funding from the MIT Design Lab, MassChallenge and the Inter-American Development Bank.
“One disadvantage of our chair is that it doesn’t fold,” Bollini said when asked about other companies also working in this space. “But most of our riders don’t have cars, so that’s not really an issue. But if you’re in a really tight city where space is a huge premium, having folding is pretty important.”
He added that the MIT team has gotten feedback from Whirlwind Wheelchair International’s and Motivation, two other companies that make rugged wheelchairs. “The way that we all see it is that no one wheelchair is perfect for everyone, so the more people in that space the better.
Wow. I don't see anything in that chair that hasn't already been brought to market. It's always fun to see engineers "create" something that has already been made. They should visit a wheelchair clinic in the US before they implement any other big ideas for people with mobility impairments. The $250 cost is naive too.