Dis­rupt Dis­abil­ity

Adapt­able wheel­chairs that use bi­cy­cle tech­nol­ogy and 3D print­ing

The Observer - The New Review - - Cover story -

Like many peo­ple, Rachael Wal­lach gets frus­trated when she en­coun­ters re­strict­ing at­ti­tudes. But un­like most of us, she tends to chan­nel that dis­sat­is­fac­tion into find­ing a so­lu­tion. Half her life­time ago, when she was 18, she broke her spine and lost the use of her legs. It meant that a lot of things that she had as­sumed she was go­ing to do – like take a gap year to go travelling – were in­stantly ren­dered im­pos­si­ble.

But she adapted to her sit­u­a­tion, stud­ied phi­los­o­phy at Cam­bridge Univer­sity, and went on to work in var­i­ous po­si­tions in the pub­lic sec­tor to do with im­prov­ing the plight of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. In her 30s, how­ever, she de­cided that she wanted to go back­pack­ing, in the way that she had missed out on when she was a teenager.

So she flew to Thai­land and trav­elled around that coun­try, and oth­ers in the far east. These were places that guide books told her didn’t cater for the dis­abled, but she didn’t let that de­ter her. Some­times she found her­self climb­ing out of her wheelchair and haul­ing her­self up stairs by her arms – some­thing she wouldn’t dare do, for ex­am­ple, at a posh restau­rant in London that didn’t have a wheelchair ramp. And of­ten she found a will­ing­ness among peo­ple to al­low her to do things that, back home, they’d too of­ten refuse on the grounds of health and safety con­straints or in­sur­ance con­cerns.

The ex­pe­ri­ence got her think­ing about adapt­abil­ity, and in par­tic­u­lar how so­ci­ety ig­nores the in­di­vid­ual needs of wheelchair users. The one-size-fits-all men­tal­ity is ex­em­pli­fied by the wheelchair de­sign it­self: ba­si­cally use­ful but rather un­var­ied in form and func­tion.

It’s like the early days of NHS glasses frames, she says. “When you can only wear one kind of frame, then glasses be­come stig­ma­tis­ing. That’s true of other med­i­cal de­vices as well.”

Her an­swer was to of­fer al­ter­na­tives – cus­tomised wheel­chairs, with dif­fer­ent size and de­sign of seats made to suit the oc­cu­pant, and dif­fer­ent set­ups so that they can travel on sand or snow or other dif­fi­cult ter­rain. In 2016 she set up a com­pany, Dis­rupt Dis­abil­ity, which makes adapt­able wheel­chairs with bi­cy­cle tech­nol­ogy and seats made by 3D print­ing.

The busi­ness is in its in­fancy, and the pro­to­types are not yet as in­ex­pen­sive as she ex­pects them to be. But she is avowedly com­mer­cial in her out­look. Cur­rently com­plet­ing an MA in busi­ness stud­ies in California, she is look­ing for global reach. Re­fer­ring to Bri­tain, she says: “The NHS fo­cuses on how it can meet the most need. It doesn’t have the ca­pac­ity, and it prob­a­bly isn’t right for the NHS to shape the com­mer­cial side of the mar­ket.”

She wants to em­power wheelchair users by re­spond­ing to them as con­sumers. In the same way that there is now a wealth of spec­ta­cle frames avail­able, Wal­lach wants to see wheelchair users benefit from the same lib­er­at­ing choice. Andrew An­thony

Rachael Wal­lach pho­tographed in one of her pro­to­type wheel­chairs. Por­trait by Suki Dhanda for the Ob­server

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