“Some said that we must have sinned to have a child with a disability,” say the parents of Amanthi, an eight year old girl who has Cerebral Palsy.
Diagnosed at just a few months old, the future looked bleak for the young child, born in Andra Pradesh, India, a place where disability is all too often seen as a source of shame and mobility is key to survival.
Reliant on being carried by her parents, Amanthi was unable to go to school and faced a life of isolation until a Bristol-based charity provided a specially designed and fitted wheelchair, giving her not only independence, but also access to an education and friends.
Motivation launched in 1991 and to this day provides wheelchairs, support and training for thousands of disabled people in developing countries, who would otherwise be unable to leave their homes, go to school or work and are at a real risk of dying from preventable complications.
Yet, for many, gaining mobility is still only the start to overcoming obstacles.
This summer saw the charity move from Bristol’s outskirts to its new HQ on Sheene Road, Bedminster, where it continues to be at the forefront of cutting edge wheelchair design and has been granted Google funding to launch a new 3D printing pilot.
Reflecting on almost three decades of work, founder and director David Constantine tells Bristol24/7 about the charity’s beginnings – from college project, to early days in a tin hut, to realising the need to expand beyond wheelchair provision and combating the stigma that surrounds disability in many developing countries.
“It was 1989 and I was studying design at the Royal College of Art and we were given a project to take part in a competition to design a wheelchair for developing countries,” says David, on how it all began.
A wheelchair user himself, David teamed up with fellow student Simon Gue to design a mobility aid suitable for use over rough, rural terrain in often poverty-stricken communities and their prototype won first prize in the college competition. But they didn’t just stop there.
Along with another friend, Richard Frost, the pair used their prize money to make a trip to Bangladesh. There they visited the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed.
“We stayed a week at the centre and while we were there, we built a chair the same sort of model as our original design which was designed to use locally available materials,” continues David.
“The centre’s director said it was amazing and asked if we could come back and build more. We looked at each other and thought ‘why not’. We travelled around India looking at what the needs and the possibilities were.
“We raised more money and went for six months and built wheelchairs at this centre, where we lived in a tin shed. We redesigned the wheelchair we had made at college because we realised what the real needs were and then we set about putting it into production.
“We realised pretty soon that there was more to it than just the wheelchairs. We started teaching users about staying healthy.” He added that a version of that early design is still made to this day.
“Next we set up in Poland and then we were asked to go to Cambodia to help develop wheelchairs for amputees. We got there and there was no infrastructure or anything,” says David.
“What was hardest when we first went to other countries was to see how other people had to live. It made me realise how very lucky I am to live in a society and country that will support me. In a developing country, we just do not survive the kind of challenges that people there have to put up with are huge.
“It was not just physical, it was the isolation and being exiled from society. Disability is one of those things right down there on the bottom rung in some countries.”
Motivation runs peer training courses all over the world and was a driving force behind a 2006 World Health Organisation (WHO) conference that led to a greater focus on training and health for wheelchair users and a partnership working arrangement between the charity and WHO.
With funding from Google to pilot 3D printing in wheelchair provision that is currently working to make postural support aids, the charity is seeking to tap into the innovative design talent in Bristol and continue to build on 26 years of transforming lives.
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