After spending a summer in Tanzania, a poor country with a rough terrain, MIT graduate student Amos Winter set about to make wide-reaching social change a possibility. Now a professor at MIT, Winter’s creation is changing the lives of people with disabilities in the world’s most economically challenged areas.
Winter has invented a low-cost wheelchair he calls the Leveraged Freedom Chair, or LFC. Two hand levers that work much like the gears on a bike power the LFC. If the levers are grabbed near the top, more leverage is provide for moving over rough terrain, such as sand, mud or dirt roads. When the levers are grasped lower, it cruises along at an impressive five miles per hour on paved road. It is simple to use, and most importantly, very inexpensive to make.
“If you are a wheelchair user who lives in a rural area, there’s not really a good mobility aid that allows you to travel a long distance on many types of terrains, but is also small and maneuverable to use indoors. That is kind of what set the stage for creating the LFC,” says Winter. “As this technology has grown and become a product, it’s been very fulfilling to see that not only can people ride off-road, but having that capability also lets them have a job, or go to school or fully participate in their community.”
Wheelchairs capable of off-roading tend to come with a hefty price tag, ranging from $4,500 to $6,500, on average. In comparison, the LFC costs $200. This is great news for the non-profit organizations that deliver wheelchairs to the areas that need them most.
“It had to be cheap enough to fit within the current provision and donation structures that already distribute wheelchairs,”Winter said. “The chair not only had to be repairable, but we wanted it robust,”he says. “We wanted it to have minimal parts that could break in the field, but if the parts do need servicing, they’re made from bike parts and they’re easily available.”
Winter is working with design consultancy firm Continuum to develop another version of the chair for markets that are economically sound, and the new version will have more of the bells and whistles we expect to see in modern wheelchairs. However, as the director of MIT’s Global Engineering and Research Lab, Winter’s job is to couple engineering with product design to solve real-world problems, and it seems like the LFC has done exactly that.
Watch the video to see how the chair works! What kind of device do you think he should invent next?