Amos Winter Designs a Better Wheelchair

For Amos Winter, the initial appeal of doing a Public Service Center Fellowship in Tanzania was that it would allow him to be with his girlfriend for the summer. The project he ended up developing — assessing wheelchair technology for the Tanzania Training Center for Orthopedic Technologies (TTCOT) in collaboration with San Francisco-based Whirlwind Wheelchair International — allowed Amos to combine his background as a graduate student in mechanical engineering with his love for diving into the nitty-gritty of engineering problems.

Over the course of the summer, Amos observed and listened to people whose mobility was restricted by the poor quality of their wheelchairs. “I saw imported chairs rendered useless after breaking … because replacements are nonexistent. I saw Western-designed chairs, supposedly suited to developing world environments, that would break or wear out quickly under normal usage.”

Working within the limitations of a developing country imposed a host of design challenges: part availability, cost, and the harsh operating environment being just a few. Amos solved these problems virtually on the street: “I was in my element, scouring the streets for bicycle components that could be used in wheelchairs.” Ultimately, Amos not only reported on current technology, but also got his hands dirty, working side-by-side with local technicians to design a hand-crank configuration for hand-powered tricycles, a day Amos considers one of the best that summer. As for the next generation of wheelchairs, Amos envisions a three-wheeled model to accommodate the rough terrain, with a removable tricycle attachment and a collapsible frame, allowing the user to board and ride the bus.

For a PSC Fellowship to succeed, it must provide a lasting benefit for the community. With plans in place to return to Tanzania next fall to present his manual and instruct people how best to use the directives inside, Amos will be implementing the wheelchair innovations he developed. Suffice it to say, there is a strong likelihood that five years from now, for example, a large number of disabled Tanzanians could be travelling on three wheels, boarding buses, and making simple wheelchair repairs themselves.

Update: Amos Winter is now teaching a service learning class Wheelchair Design for Developing Countries - SP.784

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