In developing countries — where roads look like off-road, sidewalks are as rare as wheelchairs, and nothing’s as rare as cash — a mobility issue can create a major drain on a family’s already sparse resources. That’s why Randy Geile designs inexpensive wheelchairs using readily available parts.
The price of a stock off-road wheelchair starts at a couple grand and skyrockets quickly. Geile’s contraptions, mainly made of scrap wood and used bicycle parts, might cost $25 (and a little sweat).
Early designs had some simple metalwork, but working in Rwanda steered Geile toward wood. “Whatever they’re making there, they’re making of wood,” he explains. “Metal is rare. Who has a welder? Even finding a drill is difficult, and someone who knows how to use it even harder. But they have woodworking tools and skills.”
Each chair design is inspired by a different purpose. Whether for simple outdoor use, distance hauling, gardening, or even kayaking, the chairs all satisfy Geile’s intent to improve independence and productivity. “In Rwanda, if one person in the household is disabled, someone needs to care for them constantly. If you can help them be independent, you’re freeing up the caregiver as well.”
The designs themselves leave a lot to the imagination. “Every bicycle is different; every body is different; every disability is different. You don’t have to show them exactly how to do it, just that it can be done. The first time they see this chair go across the grass, they go, ‘Aha!’ So I just give them enough information to get them started down the right path. They get some skin in the game, get it exactly how they need it, and come up with their own good ideas.”