Adaptable wheelchairs that use bicycle technology and 3D printing
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