The story of Motivation's Rough Terrain wheelchair explains how we design products for their environment.

For many disabled people living in rural parts of developing countries, the earth can be both a blessing and a curse. It provides income for those who rely on farming but rough terrain often makes it hard to get around their communities.

We came up with a wheelchair design that would enable disabled people to tackle these challenges. With the Motivation Rough Terrain, they can get on with work and community life. This is the story of it's design.

When we travelled to Cambodia in 1993 we’d already been designing and making four-wheeled products for developing countries for a few years. We were invited to partner with the Jesuit Refugee Service there to create a wheelchair that could be distributed throughout rural areas where 85% of the population lived. It’s here that we first encountered the possibilities of a three-wheel design.

Other organisations were already producing three-wheeled chairs locally, but they weren’t very robust or attractive. We wanted to create something that would be tough, provided better stability and would be easier to use on uneven ground. With three wheels, the user would be more stable on rough ground as all wheels would be in contact with the ground at all times. Importantly, we were keen to create our wheelchair with a desirable aesthetic that brought dignity to the user.

Steel tubing was in short supply during our time in Cambodia, so our first three-wheeled design was made from a local hard-wood, which readily available and relatively cheap at the time. We named it the ‘Mekong’ and it was beautiful. Due to security we needed to find a way to transport as many as possible during daylight hours, so we found a way to flat pack the frame into a rice bag; now we could fit around 40 wheelchairs into a car! That wheelchair changed the lives of many disabled people throughout the country. We’re very proud of it to this day.

In 1996, our team travelled to Afghanistan and we saw immediately that the three-wheel design would be essential there too. The terrain was really tough. There were many ruined or informal roads and very few trees to make things from wood. We redesigned the wheelchair as a steel version, creating an even more durable product that could withstand the everyday mobility challenges faced by wheelchair users. We also found ways to make it more adjustable to suit a variety of users.

The next destination in the Rough Terrain’s journey was Sri Lanka. Here we could access a good rubber manufacturing industry to create our moulded front wheel. It became a great shock absorber and was wide enough to make sure it wouldn’t sink in muddy ground while being robust for hard, rocky areas. Overall our time in Sri Lanka allowed us to tackle various design challenges to make an even more sophisticated and lightweight product with increased adjustability. 

Next stop: Tanzania. At this stage of our journey we were keen to empower others to build our wheelchairs, making impact more sustainable. We set up the world's first Wheelchair Technologists Training Course teaching wheelchair design and production skills, as well as assessment, prescription and management of a wheelchair service. That meant simplifying the construction and reducing the amount of tooling required.

During these years, the whole sector started to look at the bigger, global picture of disability and wheelchair provision. The World Health Organization released data showing that 70 million people worldwide needed wheelchairs but could not access them. We knew our local workshop approach and intensive project work couldn’t make a big enough impact on these numbers.

It was time to take our Rough Terrain wheelchair into mass scale production. Again, the design had to adapt to work for a new manufacturing process. We learnt a lot, very quickly. We found a factory that would maintain a complete quality assurance process, while supporting our decision to make sure the parts and materials used could be easily replaced. Over the years we had seen how difficult it could be to get hold of parts in developing countries. So we knew it would be vital for users to be able to repair and maintain their wheelchair with bearings, inner tubes, wheels and other components that could be sourced locally.

It’s been more than fifteen years since we started mass producing our first Rough Terrain wheelchairs and they’ve changed the lives of thousands of disabled people around the world in this time. We annually review the design and actively respond to the changing needs of users and partners through design development upgrades. This way we will continue changing lives for many years to come.