Hesperian Health Guides
Wheelchair Production as a Small 'Village Industry'
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In several countries small groups of disabled persons have started to produce low-cost, good-quality wheelchairs adapted to local needs. Usually this is in places where standard factory-made wheelchairs are very high-priced and are not suited for use on rough or sandy ground.
Some of these ‘little factories’ try to be self-sufficient. A few have even succeeded in making a modest profit, while keeping prices low.
Sometimes, a small-scale wheelchair making and repair shop is set up as part of a community rehabilitation program. Self-sufficiency (selling the chairs for a little more than it costs to make them) is often a goal. But because families with the greatest need are often least able to pay, the chairs must often be sold below cost.
WHAT KIND OF WHEELCHAIRS TO MAKE
This depends on many factors: cost, skills or training available, tools and equipment needed, amount of money available to start, building materials available, the possible market, the local economy, and needs of the wheelchair user and family.
For example, folding tube-metal chairs are relatively expensive to make and require more skill, training, and equipment. However, they often work smoother, last longer, and are easier to transport than are many other models. These high-quality, good-looking chairs—painted or even chrome plated—may sell the best, even if expensive, and may compete with factory-made chairs.
If the wheelchair users will be mostly children and poor families, low-cost wooden chairs may be more appropriate. These can be easily built to size and adapted to the needs of the individual child. The chair may not last as long. But the child is growing and her needs may change. Simple wood chairs also require fewer skills to build—mainly carpentry. They are easier for the family to build, repair, or add changes to at home.
Ideally, a village shop would make a variety of chairs out of different materials and at different prices. Chairs of all models, sizes, and adaptations should be kept on hand to give the child and family a chance to know and try different possibilities. Be sure to make child-sized chairs. And make chair inserts so that adult-sized chairs can be adapted for children.
Look for every opportunity to keep costs low. Providing repair services for used and broken chairs are good ways to keep children on wheels. Also use as much ‘waste’, and used and free materials as you can: old bicycle wheels, old machinery bearings, scrap metal, and bolts from junk yards. For basic building materials, check prices of different sellers. Once you are sure of what you need, try to buy large amounts at lower cost. If you explain to the sellers the purpose of your purchase, they may lower prices or give you useful scraps.