Summer in Nicaragua: “It’s All About Becoming Self-Sustaining”

Give a man a fish, the old saying goes, and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime.

Mark Sullivan, Invacare Corp.’s VP of Rehab, saw that kind of self-sufficiency in action this summer in Leon, Nicaragua. He visited Leon in August as part of a project that teaches people in developing countries to manufacture their own wheelchairs, thus establishing local businesses. In other words: Give a man a wheelchair, and he will re-enter society. Teach his neighbors how to build wheelchairs, and the whole community is lifted up.

Sullivan’s summer vacation plans started as a simple effort to find a wheelchair charity to help. “I ran across this group funded by the Polus Center, which is an NGO (non-governmental organization) out of Massachusetts,” he says. “They’re also tied in with Whirlwind Wheelchair and Ralf Hotchkiss. I’d heard of him for years, but never really had a chance to meet him. He’s just a fantastic guy.”
Hotchkiss’ process differs from that of other advocacy groups that collect and donate used equipment or build and distribute inexpensive chairs…chairs that can break down due to developing countries’ poor road conditions or extreme terrain. When the chairs break, replacement parts can be impossible to find locally.

“He doesn’t develop chairs for them,” Sullivan says of Hotchkiss. “He teaches them how to build their own chairs… These groups (that visit) teach people to set up their own manufacturing, utilizing local materials as much as possible. They’ll use bicycle bearings instead of wheelchair bearings, so that when something goes wrong, they can get them locally.”

The fledgling companies then “sell them as much as possible to consumers, thinking just like anywhere else that if you pay even a little something for it, you have more ownership.”

Sullivan contributed engineering tips and advice on wheelchair design, and now that he’s home, intends to ship a Top End racing chair to Nicaragua: “There’s a couple of guys who work there that are just dying to play sports. One guy built himself a handcycle, and he rode it through the streets.”

In addition, Sullivan sees an opportunity to share knowledge: “We want to create a virtual support program, so they can tap into our engineers here, electronically. There’s a lot we can do that doesn’t even require money or travel.”

Sullivan says he also learned a lot from the Nicaraguans he worked with and from their clients, many with spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy or amputations due to landmine injuries. “Here in the U.S., everything seems to be about having to build stuff that’s made for use in the home,” Sullivan points out. “Our government has totally lost track of reintegrating people back into society. Everybody’s following Medicare, which was originally set up for the aged. But now that’s become the standard for all other funders to follow. So everything’s now about the home, which is counter to the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), and here’s this third-world country that’s all about getting people back out and becoming members of society again.

“We’re going backward here, and they’re going forward. For me, that was really a big lesson.”
Sullivan is planning more travel with the Whirlwind team: “I’m probably going to Colombia next. I’ve been invited there.”
For more information on Whirlwind Wheelchair International projects, visit www.whirlwindwheelchair.org.

This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Mobility Management.

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