Pointing out problems is fairly easy. Coming up with realistic solutions is much harder. So, lets take a look at a meaningful solution. As I see it, regarding active manual wheelchair users, there are the following major categories:
Group A. People whose current wheelchairs are substandard, and they are unable to afford a replacement. This Group also includes people who need a wheelchair and don’t have one. And those who are unable to repair their current wheelchair due to lack of availability of services or high costs. Group A is typical in low resource countries.
Group B. People whose current wheelchair is not properly optimized for them. It may be too big, or have too many accessories making it too heavy, it may be improperly configured making it hard to propel. Group B also includes people who are much less active using their wheelchair than they would be if their wheelchair was properly optimized. They include people who have had to pay more for their wheelchair than they should have. Thereby taking away resources from other mobility devices and other activities. Group B is more typical of wealthy countries.
Group C. People who are for the most part satisfied with their wheelchair and how it is optimized.
Therefore, viable solutions should revolve around decreasing the size of Group A and Group B while simultaneously increasing the size of Group C.
In my opinion, Group A has the most dire problem. Therefore, it is worth exploring solutions for them first. In a nutshell, Group A suffers from a lack of appropriate assistive technology.
Appropriate assistive technology consists of wheelchairs that are:
Suitable for the environment.
Adjustable so they can be properly optimized from person to person.
Affordable and possible for the local population to obtain and repair.
The reality of economics ensures that these wheelchairs will not be made of titanium or carbon fiber. They are likely to be mass produced steel or aluminum wheelchairs. As I explained when discussing the profiteering strategy of Ultra-Commonization, wheelchairs are already being mass produced in huge numbers. The problems stem from how they have been designed and manufactured.
Let’s think of this problem in terms of a company with a fixed Research & Development budget. Right now, almost the entire budget is being spent on how to make wheelchairs lighter, more custom, and more high tech for people in wealthy countries, while minimal amounts are spent on determining how to make wheelchairs more functional for Group A.
The For-Profit Wheelchair Industry’s strategy of Ultra-Customization is diametrically opposed to solving the problems of Group A. If functional/adjustable wheelchairs could be mass produced for hundreds of dollars, how could they justify selling their wheelchairs which cost over $10,000?
Institutional Assistive Technology entities such as engineering universities, technology companies, and government funded research agencies, are primarily focused on developing high-end assistive technology. While they don’t necessarily have a profit motive. Their incentives revolve around the glamour and glory of creating “groundbreaking” high tech solutions.
Therefore, in my opinion, real solutions to reduce the current Inequality of Assistive Technology gap will require changing the incentives that drive the R&D. For engineers, the glory of creating new technology needs to be reframed as creating new affordable designs that enable inexpensive manufacturing processes, materials, servicing, and repairs.
Rather than trying to create the lightest wheelchair at any cost, you create the lightest wheelchair that is still affordable and adjustable using methods of available mass production. While, designing the world’s lightest wheelchair may get you an entry in the Guinness World Book of Records, it creates minimal practical value. The heaviest component of the wheelchair system is the person using it. Reducing the weight of the wheelchair frame by a pound or two has a negligible effect on the force required to propel the wheelchair system. Yet, reducing the weight of the wheelchair frame has become an obsession within the industry due to its marketing value and bragging rights.
While the For-Profit Wheelchair Industry engages in an arms race to produce the lightest, most customized, and highest price wheelchair, the needs of millions of people in low resource countries are ignored. Companies like Sauber and Orthotec develop one of a kind $50,000 racing wheelchairs and claim that the knowledge gained will be applied to benefit “wheelchair users in everyday life”. Really? Are $50,000 wheelchairs also making “the world a better place”? Let’s be honest. A racing wheelchair and the dynamics of how it is applied, has very little in common with an everyday wheelchair. These companies could have used their engineering resources to develop racing wheelchair designs that increase access to the sport due to their affordability and versatility.
Instead of designing a $50,000 racing wheelchair that defeats $15,000 ones, how about designing $5,000 racing wheelchairs the perform as well or better than current $15,000 wheelchairs?
Engineering challenges depend upon the limiting factors stipulated by the challenge. You can challenge yourself to design the most “functional” wheelchair from $100,000 in materials or challenge yourself to build the most “functional” wheelchair from $500 in materials. Solving the first challenge will help almost nobody, while solving the second will help millions of people.
Next, let's channel these design improvements/ideas to B-Corporations who stated goal is to widely produce affordable/functional wheelchairs rather than make a profit for private equity owners. These company are typically undercapitalized and therefore would benefit great from access to effective design information and expertise.
While this is only a partial solution, it is a start that doesn't require more funding and resources. It is a redirection of existing resources to the area of greatest need and impact.