Of the one billion people with disabilities in the world today, over 70 million need a wheelchair. Faustina, a wheelchair user, sums up how important they are for people like her: “If you don’t have a proper wheelchair, that is when you really feel disabled. But if you have a proper wheelchair, which meets your needs and suits you, you can forget about your disability.”
Unfortunately, due to the unaffordable cost of healthcare for many families in developing countries, fewer than 1 in 6 people have access to one. Global Mobility is an organization that’s trying to change that statistic one wheelchair at a time.
This U.S. based non-profit provides free wheelchairs to people with disabilities across the world, particularly in developing countries. It was founded in 2012 by David Richard, a man with a proven track record in mobility solutions. He has been involved in distributing wheelchairs since 1996, helping more than 65,000 people in over 70 countries, from Central America to the Far East, to become mobile.
He and the Global Mobility team are driven by the belief that mobility is essential for life. Without it, people are forced to rely on others for basic care, perpetuating the myth that their only role in society is to be helpless. Disability does not mean inability, but without a chair, children and adults do not get the chance to prove it. As Chief Operating Officer Chris Grange points out,
"A child who is disabled and unable to walk on their own, every place they go they are dependent upon their parents or a friend or relative to carry them. Eventually, that child becomes too large to be carried. And they will then spend the rest of their lives confined to a room or a cot in the house and not be a part of the community."
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Global Mobility sources its wheelchairs in two ways. At its refurbishment facility in Los Angeles, Global Mobility takes in several thousand donated chairs a year. These will often have belonged to children who have outgrown them. Here they are ‘upcycled’ – refitted and re-equipped to high standards by teams of volunteers who are often wheelchair users themselves.
Secondly, Global Mobility partners with Hope Haven, a wheelchair manufacturer based in Guatemala, to provide devices with more specialist requirements.
"The wheelchairs we provide are appropriately designed and custom-fitted to each man, woman and child to meet their specific needs," says David. "These are considered complex rehabilitation wheelchairs with complex seating systems in them so they adapt to the child’s body."
To provide the correct wheelchairs, Global Mobility partners with hospitals and rehabilitation centers in developing countries to assess the special needs of their region. Staff from these medical facilities visit patients at home, gathering as much information as possible about their particular condition so Global Mobility can produce the best wheelchair for them.
These tailor-made chairs are also constructed to be robust enough to tackle the tough terrain of developing countries, by being fitted with large tires for example. Thus Global Mobility can offer a range of mobility aids, from advanced rehab to sports wheelchairs, for all age groups.
The techs at Hope Haven know what they’re doing because they can empathize with the final recipients. All of the manufacturer’s 17 employees use wheelchairs. For example, Silvia’s life was transformed when she was given a wheelchair upon starting work there:
“Before I started using my wheelchair I wasn’t even able to leave my house … Now that I’m here I’ve got a lot of colleagues … I play basketball … When I came here my outlook changed completely and so did my life.”
Whether from Los Angeles or Guatemala, the wheelchairs are destined to help people across the world. In 2016, for example, Global Mobility provided over 2,100 free mobility aids to people in 10 countries.
However, transporting wheelchairs to so many different places in a safe and timely fashion presents a challenge. To send them by container ship can take months and many people have urgent mobility needs –
like the children at the Da Nang Rehabilitation Hospital in Vietnam. Here, young patients with conditions such as cerebral palsy, congenital paralysis and spinal cord injuries can receive much-needed treatment, taking pressure off their families in the process. But the hospital’s resources are stretched: there are only 70 beds for the 200 children that come here every day.
In 2016 the hospital contacted Global Mobility for help. The organization then rapidly produced 40 custom-fitted wheelchairs for delivery to the children, but transporting the chairs was a logistical and shipping challenge. David Richard turned to DHL, who offered to transport the cargo from Guatemala to Vietnam for free. The wheelchairs were flown via Panama, Cincinnati, Hong Kong and Ho Chi Minh City, arriving in Da Nang seven days later. For David, it was unprecedented,
“Never in the 20 years I’ve been doing this have we been able to transport wheelchairs in seven days. Shipped, delivered, fitted … and the child now can go to school.”
That means a better life for children like Thu, a five-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who previously had to be carried everywhere. Her mother saw the benefits of Thu’s new wheelchair immediately:
“Once she was in her chair I saw less pressure on her body, making her body stronger, and she was able to sit.”
Increasing Thu’s mobility has transformed family life. Now they can all sit outside together, meaning Thu can get more fresh air and feel part of her neighborhood. And seeing Thu outside has a positive impact on the community as well, normalizing the inclusion of people with disabilities in everyday society. Global Mobility plans to ship more wheelchairs to Da Nang later in the year.
The organization doesn’t just deliver the chairs, however. Voluntary teams of physical therapists and trained seating technicians also travel to the destination country to provide advice and education in wheelchair functionality, maintenance and care. The aim is to train local staff to be their own mechanics so they can fix any problems that arise. The organization provides tools as well as training to achieve this.
These seating clinics, where children are individually fitted into their chair, are carried out at the centers like Da Nang. But for the families of people with disabilities, it can be a very long journey of many hours from their village in the mountains for example. In Nicaragua, children with disabilities can arrive by donkey to receive their new chair, leaving with it tied to the animal’s back.
The challenge for Global Mobility, like any non-profit, is money. New chairs cost thousands of dollars, but the organization is able to keep costs down through donations. Shipping costs are the real issue. Prices of containers to the DRC, for example, have recently more than doubled due to civil war.
It will be a shame if Global Mobility can’t transport them. Access to a wheelchair is truly life-changing. As Chris Grange says, “This gives them access to life. It’s an amazing transformation. It truly is changing lives by moving lives.”
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