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 Mouldable Glue user, and we’re excited to share his truly inspiring story.

Everything changed in a moment

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

Being the strong spirited person he is 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. He retrained as a computer programmer and worked at IBM. However, he encountered everyday challenges trying to live independently.

One day, he was invited to lunch with some industrial designers at IBM. He looks back with amusement at what became a major 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 onward he knew that he wanted to use the power of good design to improve the lives of people with reduced physical abilities like himself.

Discovering the power of design

He went on to enrol in an MA in product design at the Royal College of Art in London. While there 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 the developing world who were suffering from a lack of mobility.

After leaving college, the team secured sponsorship to go to Bangladesh and India to make the project a reality. By spending six 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!”

Right from the beginning, a focus on durability and functionality for the everyday lives of users was crucial to their idea. And using locally available skills and materials was also essential. This model had to be sustainable and, most importantly, scalable around the world.

Once back home in the UK, they founded the NGO Motivation. Over the next ten years, they travelled to far-flung and remote locations (in the early days in VW campervans). They built workshops and wheelchairs everywhere from Poland to Romania, Cambodia to Nicaragua to Sri Lanka. Achieving 22 workshops in 18 countries producing more than 18,000 chairs! And each chair designed specifically for the local surroundings.

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

Over the years David and Motivation have achieved incredible things. Their work is now held up as a benchmark by the World Health Organization (WHO). They’ve designed sports wheelchairs for athletes including basketball players, as well as specialist wheelchairs for children living with cerebral palsy. Concentrating on people on low incomes, in short, those who need them the most.

Reflecting on his journey and the work of Motivation, David believes that the greatest difference they make is to people’s independence and, crucially, their ability to earn an income.

Dignity, independence and confidence

David has changed the lives of countless individuals. And getting a wheelchair is only 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, to generate income, become breadwinners and decision makers. This isn’t about designing wheelchairs. It’s 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 – thanks again for sharing, we love that Sugru is a part of your awesome life.