The wheel deal
Opportunities once beyond the grasp of Ugandans with disabilities are now within reach thanks to a specially designed wheelchair
Posted by Niki Wilson on May 23, 2018
The communities that dot the foothills beneath the Rwenzori Mountains in the Kasese District of southwestern Uganda are connected by rugged dirt roads that wind up, down and around lush, hilly terrain. Rocks, steep grades and, at times, slippery conditions make it a tough place for anyone to get around. But if you’re one of the tens of thousands of people with disabilities that affect your mobility, it’s almost impossible.
These roads, which can lead to school, jobs and general self-sufficiency, are off limits to those without a means to travel them, in part making these people “the poorest of the poor,” says Navin Parekh, the Canadian co-founder of CanUgan, a non-profit organization that solves mobility issues for Ugandans with disabilities. Through CanUgan, Parekh raises funds to provide people in need with locally manufactured hand-pedaled tricycles, an idea he got during his stint as a volunteer in the country in 2010. In 2012 Parekh partnered with Bjarki Hallgrimsson and his students in the School of Industrial Design at Carleton University to re-design the tricycles with stronger frames that could hold a variety of income-generating attachments, such as solar-powered charging stations and maize mills. This work was done in consultation with local manufacturers to ensure the new designs worked on the ground and could be produced locally. Now, the team hopes to implement a new design in the Kasese district: a tricycle-wheelchair combo.
The idea was born from observations made by Hallgrimsson’s students on a follow-up visit in 2014 to assess the effectiveness of the first tricycle redesign. Parekh says that project, which was partly funded by the International Development Research Centre, has received a lot of positive feedback because almost all of the people with tricycles are now able to support themselves with income-generating activities. For example, women with disabilities that live near the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo have now started a cross-border trade, using their tricycles to move goods between the two countries. “Some of these women are now the main breadwinners in their families,” says Parekh. “Some have bought their own homes.” Other tricycle users make house calls as tailors, shoemakers and fruit-and-vegetable sellers.
But when the Carleton design students interviewed local women and visited an elementary school, they realized they’d solved only part of the mobility problem. “The tricycles are a good way to get people to their destination,” says Hallgrimsson. “But once they get there, they’re crawling on the ground because there’s no wheelchair for them.” The tricycles were simply too big to travel easily into homes, schools and markets.
To address that problem, student Jennifer Vandermeer designed a two-in-one tricycle-wheelchair. When it’s in tricycle mode, the device allows a rider to cover long distances over bumpy terrain. But once the rider arrives at school, work or home, they can remove the front wheel and replace it with castors, turning it into a wheelchair, which helps the person enter buildings and manoeuvre in smaller spaces.
Vandermeer’s design may also help alleviate the problem of access to wheelchairs in general. “Local people can’t afford to buy wheelchairs,” says Hallgrimsson. Though well-meaning international organizations try to address this problem by sending second-hand or cheaply made wheelchairs to the region, these chairs aren’t designed for the terrain and break down easily. Replacement parts aren’t available and locals don’t have the tools to fix them. “We saw some of these donated wheelchairs sitting broken by people’s houses,” says Hallgrimsson.
That’s why working with local manufacturers is key. Through a grant awarded by the Swedish organization Promobilia, this summer Hallgrimsson and his students will consult with potential rural producers in Kasese District to ensure the two-in-one design can be made and maintained in rural settings by local people using local materials. That it can be made with the resources available in cities has already been proven in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, where a hospital has begun to manufacture the device from the designers’ specs, which Hallgrimsson says will one day be freely available on the web. “We’re not a point where the rural people can do this yet, because they need training and better tools,” he adds. “We’re working with CanUgan to help them increase their capacity.”
As was the case with the hand-pedaled tricycle redesign, follow-up with users will be an important part of ensuring success. Hallgrimsson says it’s not uncommon for outside organizations to offer design assistance in communities like those in Kases District, then end their involvement before the designs can be tested and tweaked. “Our philosophy has always been to see projects through to a point where they are working for local people,” he says. “We’re in it for the long haul.”
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This is part of an ongoing series of stories on international development projects supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, presented in partnership with Canadian Geographic. The stories appear online once a month at idrc.canadiangeographic.ca.
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