Rewarding Low-Tech Solution For Africa’s Disabled

Rewarding Low-Tech Solution For Africa’s Disabled

A wheelchair made with bicycle parts that can be repaired by local bike shops in developing countries is among 23 low-tech innovations recently shortlisted for an award by tech company Siemens.

Donated wheelchairs designed for evenly-surfaced Western roads are rarely robust enough for the rough terrain found in most low-income countries, said Sue Coe, a development and disability inclusion consultant who worked for 25 years in international development in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, AllAfrica reports.

The Leveraged Freedom Wheelchair is adapted for rough terrain – a good design feature, the report said.

Such low-tech solutions are good news for disabled people. Many assistive device are not designed with end users in mind, and so fail to deliver on their potential usefulness and longevity in low-income countries.

When it comes to wheelchairs, may believe that something is better than nothing; that exporting used wheelchairs or sending wheelchairs using designs that wouldn’t be approved in the West to developing countries will transform physically impaired people’s lives, Coe said.

Some non-governmental organisations including Motivation and Whirlwind Wheelchair have campaigned that this attitude can harm physically impaired people.

Ill-fitting wheelchairs can cause serious and potentially fatal health problems such as pressure sores, spinal curvature and spinal contractures. Wheelchair donations made with good intentions can unintentionally cause harm, Coe said.

Wheelchairs are like shoes: they should fit the user well. This means that local fitting services are important.

Good practice examples of such services include the Comprehensive Community Based Rehabilitation in Tanzania, which offers a range of support services to its local populations. But many wheelchair donation programs do not ensure local fitting services are part of the provision package.

Wheelchairs should be maintained – and ideally produced – locally to avoid them quickly becoming redundant. Standard wheelchairs may last six months on average, according to information provided to Siemens, the report said.

The shortlisted wheelchair should typically last five years or more, its maker said.

By making the wheelchair locally repairable the designers have sought to put its end users at the heart of its design. This practice is similar to the appropriate technology concept that organisations such as the non-governmental organization Practical Action have promoted for decades.

All wheelchairs should be designed according to these principles; that technological choice and application should be decentralized, people-centered and locally maintained and controlled.

The author of this report, Sue Coe, worked for World Vision, Practical Action, VSO and Action on Hearing Loss. She can be reached at suecoe2603@gmail.com.