Automotive Accessibility Special Section

BraunAbility at 40: Keeping the Pioneer Spirit Alive

In 1972, when The Braun Corp. was born, Richard Nixon was president. It was a year of Watergate break-ins, Bobby Fischer becoming a world chess champion, swimmer Mark Spitz winning seven Olympic gold medals in Munich, and women competing in the Boston Marathon for the first time.

Ten years earlier, Ralph Braun, diagnosed with muscular dystrophy as a child, had designed and built a three-wheeled scooter, then launched a part-time business called Save-A-Step. By 1972, the company had been renamed The Braun Corp. This year, the automotive access manufacturer — a.k.a., BraunAbility — celebrates its 40th anniversary.

Because of the company’s long history, we gave BraunAbility’s president, Nick Gutwein, an assignment: Tell us how the industry has evolved in four decades, name some major milestones, and give us a peek at BraunAbility’s plans for the future. Here’s what Nick said.

— Ed.

Ralph BraunIt’s a great time to be in this industry, and I think it all started with people like Ralph Braun.

Ralph is a great icon and pioneer in the industry, and — to use the cliché that necessity is the mother of invention — there’s absolutely no question that necessity drove adaptation in transportation mobility.

If you look back 40 years ago — from the decade of 1960 to 1970, and then at the 1970s — these were people fighting for freedom. They had a desire to participate fully in life, not to let their disabilities get in the way of doing everything that God gave them the ability to do. I would say that is unique to our industry: People fighting for freedom not only for themselves, but for others with disabilities to participate fully in life.

That really defined our industry for 20 years, and still today, there are very strong remnants of that.

A Civil Rights Movement

Forty years ago, people with disabilities didn’t go to school, because schools weren’t accessible. The industry was a cottage industry, meaning there was really no standardization, no organization. It was people trying to get by and customizing products for their mobility needs. There was a lot of creativity. They never would have won beauty contests with what they created, but they got by. They solved the problems.

It was a society generally ignorant about the capability of people with disabilities, and there is still a lot of ignorance out there. The infrastructure was really pathetic; there were significant barriers for people with disabilities not only to get to work, but just to function in life the way they needed to to experience it in full. So these individuals we call pioneers, it’s their spirit that drove this industry to change. There’s no question in my mind that it’s that same spirit today that continues to drive that change.

Until you actually get involved with people with disabilities and see just a glimpse of what their lives are like, you can’t understand it. I don’t fully understand it, but I do look at it as a civil rights issue.

40 Years of Progress

Braun MinivanWhat’s different now? We have standardization. We have products and services making it possible for all people with disabilities to participate in everything, including the workforce.

Technology has advanced greatly in terms of functionality. Products are available through professionals, and the mobility dealers and individuals who are servicing this customer base are a key difference from 40 years ago. They provide consultations, support, understanding, and customization of products to fit the unique needs of the individual with the disability.

We have a $1 billion transportation industry alone, just in transportation mobility, and there have been reports of products for people with disabilities being in the $250 billion range. Th at is amazing.

Societal awareness and understanding have increased significantly, though I think there’s a long way to go. So we have an industry now, we have standardization, we have safety standards that go along with regulation, we have infrastructure that’s in place that helps support this, we have advocacy groups that are helping to drive this.

I’d say it’s significant progress.

If people had waited for regulation and standardization, we would never be here. It takes the people who say, “I’m not going to wait for someone to tell me it’s OK. I’m going to make these products because I need to get to work. I need to be mobile.” And then that drives the regulating body to say, “Th is is important. We should make sure we support this.”

A lot of people think regulation is a bad thing, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s been a very good thing for this industry. Some of the most important milestones have to do with regulation.

Interestingly, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), established in 1990, is squarely in the middle of this 40 years we’re talking about, and it has had a very profound impact on this industry. We have NHTSA that regulates highway safety standards, and then there is what many of the ADA actions did to make things accessible for people…because if you don’t have buildings and sidewalks that are accessible, transportation is nice, but where are you going to go when you get there?

A New Generation of Expectations

From people who were involved early in the industry, I often hear that people with disabilities were at first so happy to go somewhere that actual product functionality in terms of aesthetics and ease of operation were far down the list of importance. They were just delighted to have an option to go somewhere.

Today, expectations are much greater of our products in the industry…as they should be. Are the locations for switches in the vehicles ergonomically correct for someone in a wheelchair? Is there good maneuverability and space inside, so it’s easy for someone to get around? Is the securement system simple, or does it take three people to get a tie-down in place? And the look: Is it something that screams “different,” or is it integrated into the normal product mix that you’re going to see?

Same thing in terms of our service. We talk a lot about our dealer network, and I’d say that’s a really important diff erence today versus 20 or 30 years ago. The product needs to work; our reliability needs to be just like you would expect when you buy a brand-new Toyota, Honda, Chrysler or Chevy. It needs to work every time. Th at’s our job.

When there is an issue of service, when there is a maintenance issue, somebody needs to be there in the neighborhood with our customers. Today, that network isn’t fully developed, but it’s really made advances in terms of service and support for our customer base.

Years ago, dealers weren’t that plentiful, and maybe their quality was widespread. Th at’s totally unacceptable. Wherever you live, you need to have the same kind of service.

Expectations are totally different now. Years ago, you used to wait weeks to get your car; you had to order it. Today, we would never accept that. It’s the same with information exchange and technology: We expect to get things quickly. If I order something today, I want to get it tomorrow. Th ose are just societal changes, and you can’t expect people with disabilities to sit on the sidelines and say, “Well, I’ll wait till I can experience the same kinds of benefits.”

One other milestone I think is really interesting — and I’m giving the credit to Lee Iacocca for it — is the advent of the minivan. The minivan has stood the test of time. I think it was 1984 when Chrysler came out with the minivan, and here we are nearly 30 years later. The minivan is definitely different than when it first came out. Back then, there were definitely certain perceptions about minivans. But it’s one of the more functional vehicles out there, and it’s OK for a man to drive a minivan, where it used to be a soccer-mom thing.

It really is an ideal platform for wheelchair accessibility because of its height and the ability to take the floor down and configure it in a way that makes it work. That’s a key milestone, and it dramatically changed the personal-use transportation accessibility. Prior to that, we had to buy a full-size van and equip it with a lift . It was more expensive, it was difficult, less easy to park, not as efficient. So that changed things dramatically. That was a big milestone.

Many Needs, One Voice

One thing that’s been extremely important to this industry — prior to the ADA and I think even more so since the ADA — is the number of advocacy groups fighting for increased awareness, increased access to products and improvement in infrastructure. There are many, and I wouldn’t want to leave anybody out, but I can give you one example: United Spinal Association and the role they’re playing in New York City with respect to people in wheelchairs getting full access to taxis. There are many, many different groups that are fighting out there, and that has made a huge difference in regulation and awareness. They will be even more important going forward.

As much progress as we’ve made, there’s so much more ground to cover. If you’re not involved in our industry, how aware are you about the need for opportunities in the workplace, improved infrastructure and improved transportation for people with disabilities? I’m not sure that society outside of our industry and outside of families and people with disabilities really understand the depth of need and also the progress that’s been made.

Until someone is exposed to the life of people with disabilities, they really don’t understand it. So if the portion of society with that opportunity is fairly small, how do you get them to understand? To me, that’s critical.

20 Years from Now…

I’d love to be able to say in the next 20 years that people with disabilities have the same opportunity for employment. Today, we talk about the unemployment rate for people with disabilities being double the overall rate. That’s just unacceptable. The mindset of employers regarding barriers and issues to hire people with disabilities is not good. There’s a lot of ignorance out there: It costs too much money, where would we put them, what can they contribute? Somebody who has been through overcoming a disability can contribute in problem-solving, in adding value to a business, and in pursuing this great market opportunity for products and services for people with disabilities.

I see transportation — what we do — playing a key role in getting people to and from work and being able to function in the workplace the way they should be able to.

The other thing I would love to be able to say in 20 years is that we’ve made it more affordable for all people with disabilities. That spans public transportation and personal transportation. The busing systems have done a great job of including accessibility for all; taxis have a long way to go.

I would like to see aff ordable transportation access for all.

On the personal-use side, our products in general are still too expensive. We need to find solutions for people that allow them to acquire a vehicle for less than $30,000. Product design and costs are going to have to be worked on, as well as financing sources for people with disabilities.

There are already options for under $30,000, but I think we need to increase those. In this whole idea of access, there is an equation of affordability that we have to be addressing.

Another thing that’s very important is access around the world.

There’s still tremendous opportunity around the U.S. and Canada, and that’s where our priority is. However, we will continue to grow outside the U.S. and have put a lot of eff ort into that in the last few years.

If you look outside the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Germany and Australia, the rest of the world has a long way to go with standardization and regulation and doing the kind of stuff that’s been going on here the last 20 years. There’s a lot to do to make it a global industry with standards like we talked about.

The Next Decades for BraunAbility

We still have a lot of room to improve, and we do a significant amount of research with customers. We have a great customer in house in Ralph Braun, and in addition we go out and talk to our customers about what they would really like to see improved.

We have as full of a new product pipeline as we’ve ever had. I would say that in the next couple of years, you will see advancements in electronics systems and in the environment inside the cabin of our vehicles. The room and space, inside the cabin, the ergonomic setup — we’ll take a significant look at all of that, and while they will still have the same appeal in melding into the original vehicle, they will probably be much more responsive to the unique needs of our customer base. We’re excited by that. We’ve been investing a lot in technology that we believe will address some of the needs of that environment and the ergonomic setup of the vehicle.

In addition, we’ll be participating in many more commercial or public transportation markets and products.

We are proud of what Ralph has built over the past 40 years, and this alone is motivation to drive change over the next 40 for all people with disabilities.

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Mobility Management.

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