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 Wheelchair Design in Developing Countries  posted by  member150_php   on 3/6/2009  Add Courseware to favorites Add To Favorites  
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Winter, Amos G., and Amy Smith, SP.784 Wheelchair Design in Developing Countries, Spring 2009. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare), (Accessed 11 Jul, 2010). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Wheelchair Design in Developing Countries

Spring 2007

Man sitting in a three-wheeled chair, holding the hand crank component.
Course instructor Amos Winter works on a hand-cranked tricycle wheelchair, or handcycle, with a user. (Photo courtesy of Amos Winter.)

Course Highlights

The related resources page includes videos of the manufacturing process and demonstrations for different wheelchair and handcycle designs.

Course Description

This class will give students the chance to better the lives of others by improving wheelchairs and tricycles made in the developing world. According to the United States Agency for International Development, 20 million people in developing countries require wheelchairs, and the United Nations Development Programme estimates below 1% of the need in Africa is being met by local production. Lectures will focus on understanding local factors, such as operating environments, social stigmas against the disabled, and manufacturing constraints, then applying sound scientific/engineering knowledge to develop appropriate technical solutions. Multidisciplinary student teams will conduct term-long projects on topics such as hardware design, manufacturing optimization, biomechanics modeling, and business plan development. Theory will further be connected to real-world implementation during guest lectures by MIT faculty, Third World community partners, and U.S. wheelchair organizations. Funded summer fellowships to implement class projects into African wheelchair workshops will be offered to at least six students.

This class is made possible by an MIT Alumni Sponsored Funding Opportunities grant with additional support from the MIT Public Service Center and the Edgerton Center.

Special Features

  • Class competition video
  • Special feature video
  • Image gallery

Technical Requirements

Special software is required to use some of the files in this course: .mp4, .rm, .xls.


This page includes a course calendar.

This section describes what each Wheelchair Design in Developing Countries (WDDC) student and project group should expect as far as class structure, responsibilities, deliverables, and resources during the term.

Course Breakdown

The course units are broken into 2-2-2 corresponding to Lecture-Lab-Homework.


Each student is required to attend the lectures but is allowed to miss two during the semester. More than two absences without permission from one of the instructors will result in failing the course.


A lab time will be chosen on the second day of class. This time will be reserved for group presentations. Project teams will be required to meet weekly with their lab instructors, but may choose to do so outside the designated class lab time (see the Term project - Group meetings section).


Homework will consist primarily of readings and short assignments to be handed in. Assignments will be due one week after being assigned. As the semester progresses less homework will be given to allow more time for the project.


Final course grades will be P/D/F. Lab instructors will assign grades for all students in their section. Instructors will collaborate to ensure that there is equitable grading between lab sections. Half of the total grade is based on individual work and the other half is based on teamwork. Class and lab participation grades are based on both attendance and quality of in-class activity.

The grading breakdown is:

Class participation/homework 15%
Strategy presentation 20%
Concept presentation 20%
Most critical module (MCM) presentation 20%
Final presentation and prototype 25%

Term Project

Students will form into lab groups, 3 to 5 members plus a lab instructor, to work on a project (either from the Web site or proposed by a student) for the term. While participating in the project, each group will have the following responsibilities:


The project is meant to be a true collaboration between MIT students, experts who work in each project field, and African wheelchair technicians. Each team is required to send a weekly update email to both the project mentors and African partners to demonstrate their progress and obtain feedback/ideas. Mentors and African Partners will be assigned to project teams after the teams have been formed.

Group Meetings

Each project group is required to meet once a week with their lab instructor. It is up to the group and lab instructor to choose the best meeting time for all, which does not have to be the scheduled class lab time. The group is encouraged to pick a time that overlaps with open hours of facilities that might be useful to the project (e.g. the Hobby Shop, Edgerton Shop, Foundry, etc).


Each group will need to produce the following deliverables:

  1. A Microsoft® PowerPoint® presentation for the Strategy, Concept, MCM, and Final Presentation milestones.
  2. Poster - The Museum of Science in Boston is going to display the class projects one day before Lec #12. Teams will make a poster summarizing their work to display with their prototype. Teams may also choose to give a presentation at the Museum.
  3. Prototypes - A physical solution to each teams' MCM will be presented at the MCM presentation. For the final presentation a working prototype of a full solution to the team's problem is expected. For example, if a team designs a new wheelchair frame, a finished frame on an assembled, usable wheelchair is expected. For teams doing business plans or other projects that do not require hardware, a solution to the biggest obstacle of the project is expected at the MCM presentation, and a full plan of how to implement the group's work into an African workshop is expected at the final presentation.



The class has a materials budget of $2000. Teams will not have a fixed budget, as some teams will have to buy more things than others. If you would like to purchase an item you can either:

  1. Tell Amos where to buy it
  2. Buy it yourself and submit your receipt to Amos for reimbursement


The following on-campus facilities will be accessible to WDDC students for their group projects:

  1. The Edgerton Shop - good for machining and cutting metal parts.
  2. The Hobby Shop - good for woodworking and has a waterjet.
  3. The MIT Foundry - where to go to get things welded and learn to weld.


WDDC has multiple African-made wheelchairs and handcycles that teams can use. Teams should not destroy any of these devises, but are welcome to use parts from them. If a team would like to make a "permanent modification" to one of these devices, ask an instructor first. Also, there are loose bicycle components from all three partnering African countries which can be used/destroyed for prototyping.


Teams are to keep their projects consolidated in the designated storage room - do not make a mess! Do not leave valuables here, as the room is accessible to many people. The storage room may be changed during the semester, as a professor will be moving into this room at some point in the future.


Utilize your Mentors, Community Partners, and Lab Instructors to the fullest. They have a wealth of knowledge in your project area will greatly broaden the skill set of your team.


WDDC has funds to support three students this coming summer to implement technology generated in the class into African wheelchair workshops. The MIT Public Service Center (PSC) is interested in funding more fellowships focused on wheelchair work. Those who are interested will have to propose a project (most likely a continuation of their class project) within the guidelines of one of the PSC fellowships (Independent, network, or focus). To be fair to all interested students, proposals will be submitted to, judged by, and awarded through the PSC. Alison Hynd, coordinator for the fellowships and the IDEAS competition, will be coming to class on Lec #2 to talk about all funding opportunities to continue work from WDDC.


1 Introduction to wheelchairs in developing countries Developing country research Amos Winter Wheelchair/Trike relay race around campus Review projects
2 Designing wheelchairs for the developing world Deterministic design process

Amos Winter

Alison Hynd - PSC fellowships

Choose project teams, watch videos from workshops Define functional requirements of project
3 Wheelchair biomechanics/ergonomics Design for human use Amos Winter Power output test up ramp in basement

Power calculations from class activity

Encouraged to visit 2.007 lecture

4 Abdullah speaking to the class about his experiences Round-table discussion Abdullah Munish, TATCOT Q&A with Abdullah

Encouraged to visit 2.007 lectures

Strategy presentation - evening session, four days later

5 Appropriate technology Idea to product Amy Smith and Sarah Bird, MIT Wheelchair roll-play  
6 Available materials and manufacturing techniques in developing countries Material science/mechanics of materials

Prof. Mary Boyce, MIT

Mike Tarkanian, MIT welding instructor

Exercise of calculating forces and moments Concept presentations - evening session, six days later
7 Human power Q&A with guest speakers

Prof. David Gordon Wilson, MIT

Rory McCarthy, Move With Freedom

  Project work
8 Business plans in the developing world Writing business plans Jorge Barrera, MIT    
9 Ralf speaking to the class about his experiences Round-table discussion Ralf Hotchkiss, Whirlwind Q&A with Ralf Most critical module (MCM) presentations - evening session
10 Wheelchair user image Product/ergonomic design Prof. David Wallace, MIT Sketching exercise and judging  
11 Project work Project work      
12 Project work Project work   Project work Poster for museum of science display
13 Project work Project work   Project work Final presentation of project with a working prototype - evening session   Tell A Friend