How a slow PC led to the design of the world’s most radical wheelchair

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It’s a breezy day here at the Soweto Theatre where TEDxJohannesburg has just got underway, and if the first two sessions are anything to go by it’s going to be a moving day.

Spoken word artist Radile Mokone kicked things off with the tale of how, despite having family and friends at the receiving end of all of South Africa’s ills from the Sharpeville Massacre to present day miscarriages of justice and police brutality, he still has hope for the future of the country.

Together with a collective of artists in the Vaal region, for example, he’s tried to make the massive tome that is the National Development Plan into something a township audience can understand. It’s all about making the inspirational normal, and not leaving things to the Mandelas and Bikos of this world, he says.

Mokone was followed by entrepreneur Martin Brown, who told the story of how he created a multi-million rand business – Radical Mobility – designing all-terrain wheelchairs for paraplegics which he designs to order for customers around the world.

Brown is completely paralysed from the neck down, following a boating accident in 1998.

“The snap of my neck was like the sound of a twig breaking,” Brown says, “It reverberated in my head as I lost consciousness.”

Brown explained that after he left hospital, it was his computer and dial-up modem that kept him going. Using a dowel stick clenched between his teeth he could turn on the PC and operate a speakerphone, but dropped connections and dodgy voice recognition software caused incredible frustration.

“Somehow I needed to change my life,” Brown said. “I spent a lot of time sat in front of a computer trying to regain some form of dignity.”

His paralysis, Brown couldn’t do much about, but thanks to his slow computer and its dodgy voice software, he learned how to operate the computer using a stick instead. Realising the dowel stick gave him a level of autonomy he’d lost, Brown was inspired to go further.

Remarkably, he went on to teach himself how to use CAD software, and designed a ruggedised all-terrain wheelchair which can be driven by a single joystick at mouth level.

To round up, Brown told the story of a nine-year-old New Zealander, Oliver, who was one of his latest customers. With a condition that prevents his limbs developing properly, Oliver felt isolated from his family because he couldn’t play on the beach or go fishing, Brown says.

“Now Oliver can have fun again.” he concluded, and left the audience with an inspirational message.”We are defined by two main points in life: our tenacity, and our persistence when we have lost everything.”

Indeed.

Adam Oxford

Adam Oxford

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.

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