Meet the Wheelchair Designers Transforming Lives Across the Developing World

David Constantine is the founder and driving force behind Motivation, an amazing organisation that has pioneered the introduction of great wheelchair design to the people who need it the most in developing countries around the world. Over the last 26 years, what started as a college project at art-school has transformed more than 50,000 lives from Malawi to Afghanistan to Cambodia by giving people mobility, and as a consequence - much more than that - independence, self-confidence and motivation.

David’s story is one of adventure, respect, a hands-on spirit and an unwavering vision. We’re humbled to have him as one of our heroes and as a Sugru user, and we’re excited to share his truly inspiring story.

Everything changed in a moment

Back in the early 80’s David was an agriculture student with a thirst for adventure. On a trip to Australia working on farms he rode motorbikes and drove jeeps into the outback, and it was on one of these trips to a beautiful place to swim one day that he dived into the water and suffered an accident that would leave him paralysed from the shoulders down and requiring a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Being the strong spirited person he was, and as he says himself, lucky to be born in the UK, a country where the right level of care and support existed for him, he adjusted well to his new life where he retrained as a computer programmer and worked at IBM. However, he continued to encounter everyday challenges with using things and living as independently as he wanted to. One day, he was invited to lunch with some industrial designers in IBM, and he looks back with amusement at what turned out to be a turning point in his life: “I had no idea what they did, I thought they were responsible for designing the factories. When they explained that they designed the products around our technology, the penny dropped.” 

With a new sense of clarity, he challenged them. “So you’re the guys that put the on-switch at the back of my computer where I can’t reach it? And make the keys on my keyboard so difficult to press?” He’d found his purpose, and from that moment forward he knew that he wanted to use the power of good design to improve the lives of people with reduced physical ability like himself.

Discovering the power of design

He went on to enroll in an MA in product design at the Royal College of Art in London, and it was while there that he and classmates and friends Simon Gue and Richard Frost won a contest to modernise the wheelchair. Their approach was to design a chair, not for themselves, but for the 100 million people in developing world who were suffering from lack of mobility the most. 

After leaving college, they secured sponsorship to go to Bangladesh and India to make the project a reality. By spending 6 months there, they set up a workshop producing 20 chairs per month. 

For David, this was no mean feat! “Going to Bangladesh for six months was very exciting and at times challenging in terms of living arrangements. We lived in a tin shed and I had to take everything I needed for my day-to-day living needs. Because of the high level of my spinal injury I have no body temperature control and the heat was oppressive. At 40ºC and 80% humidity, a table fan and a garden sprayer were often my only relief!”

From the beginning, a focus on durability and functionality for the everyday lives of their users and employing locally available skills and materials was crucial to their idea, because they wanted it to be sustainable, and most importantly - to scale as a model around the world.

Back at home in the UK, they founded their NGO Motivation and over the next 10 years, by traveling to far flung and remote locations (in the early days in VW campervans), they built wheelchairs and the workshops to keep building them into the future everywhere from Poland to Romania to Cambodia, Nicaragua and Sri-Lanka, building up to 22 workshops in 18 countries producing more than 18,000 chairs, each based on a design most suitable for those surroundings. 

It was an incredible achievement, but David and his colleagues wanted more. There were still an estimated 100M people in developing countries who’s lives could be simply transformed by having a suitable wheelchair. So in 2001, with the backing of DIY Retail Group Kingfisher/B&Q and others, they decided to take it to the next level.

50,000 wheelchairs and counting

They set about developing a new mass-produced flatpack set of designs for wheelchairs, and a holistic system to customise and deploy these chairs around the world. Since its launch in 2005, their Worldmade social enterprise that makes flat-pack wheelchairs has transformed the lives of more than 25,000 people. 

Down the years, David and Motivation have achieved incredible things - as well as scaling their system of bringing great wheelchair design to so many people, their work is now used as a best case example by the WHO, they’ve designed sports wheelchairs for basket-ballers and other athletes and specialist wheelchairs for children living with cerebral palsy - all in low-income circumstances, those who need them the most. 

Reflecting on his journey and the impact of their organisation's work, he believes that the biggest difference that can be made in someone’s life is to enable that person to become independent, and crucially - with the ability to earn their own income. 

Dignity, independence and confidence

He gives examples of countless individuals who’s lives have been transformed - but getting their wheelchair has only been the first step. After that, new possibilities open up. “It’s about so much more than mobility - it’s about taking control of your life, being able to work, being able to generate income - become breadwinners, decision makers. This isn’t about designing wheelchairs, this is about transforming lives.”

David, thank you for sharing your awesome story with us - you’re one of our heroes here at Sugru. To learn more about Motivation, visit their website, watch David’s brilliant TED talk, and support their work by donating if you can.

Oh and if you'd like to see all the awesome things David does with Sugru, take a look at this short video where he shows all the ways it helps him in his everyday life. Ever adventurous, here's his latest project adapting his rowing equipment.

"I used Sugru to adapt my oars - stopping them rotating in my hands. Here you can see my first ever foray into open water on Bristol docks. I’ve lived here for 20 years and never been on the water alone since being a surfer aged 21. Quite a liberating moment. Sugru made this possible…" 

David - thank you for sharing, we love that Sugru is part of your awesome life.