Millions of disabled people lack minimal mobility as the third world has a shortfall of 20 million chairs to serve them. Children aged five and older sometimes need to crawl to get around, or can’t attend school because of lack of accessibility.
So Pablo Kaplan, who served for almost 30 years as the vice president of Marketing at Keter Plastic, an Israeli manufacturer of plastic household and garden products, decided to come to their aid and set up the Wheelchairs of Hope project. The aim was to produce wheelchairs for disabled children in Third World countries.
After he spent three years working on the project, the first shipment of 250 wheelchairs for children in institutions in Israel and the Palestinian Authority is to be sent this month, with a batch for residents of the refugee camps in Syria soon to follow. Distribution of the wheelchairs is being done through institutions including the Alyn Hospital in Jerusalem and Beit Issie Shapiro in Ra’anana.
To develop the optimal chair that can withstand harsh conditions but at the same time be comfortable for children, Kaplan contacted his friend and colleague back from his days at Keter, Dr. Amir Ziv Av, now the owner of engineering company Ziv Av Engineering Group. Together they developed a lightweight chair — it weighs 10 kilograms (22 pounds) as opposed to the standard 15 kilograms — that can handle off-road conditions, requires zero maintenance and is robust and simple to assemble. More importantly, the chair costs just $100.
“We also took the child’s self esteem into our design,” said Kaplan. “It is a chair designed for children that looks more like a high chair and not like a medical device. It is not a wheelchair for adults adapted to children.”
The prototype of the product was created using a giant three-dimensional printer, the first of its kind in Israel. Funding came from private money and from a grant from Israel’s Office of the Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Economy, said Kaplan, an Israeli who was born in Argentina. The chair also passed all the international standards tests, he said.
The wheelchairs have a metal skeleton combined with plastic elements. “The parts that come in contact with the child are plastic,” said Kaplan in an interview. The first chairs are aimed at 5- to 9-year-olds, who are semi-active and can push themselves, he said. Alyn’s occupational therapy seating specialists provided the much needed insights for the design of the wheelchair.
In addition to the chairs distributed in Israel and the PA, over 600 wheelchairs are being delivered to disabled children in Peru and Tajikistan, funded by a philanthropic foundation and the World Health Organization. Other organizations globally are in advanced stages of negotiations for chairs.
Alyn Hospital will host a ceremony to launch the project on December 7, with representatives of the World Health Organization in Geneva, the Foreign Affairs Ministry, UNICEF, the Office of the Chief Scientist, the American aid organization USAID, and rehabilitation organizations from Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The World Health Organization in Switzerland, the Red Cross and UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) all joined hands in the project, including Nobel laureate Aaron Ciechanover, a personal friend of Kaplan, who promoted the chair worldwide.
Kaplan, who was joined in the venture by his life partner Chava Rotshtein, said their vision is to distribute one million chairs over the next decade and they aim to turn the project into a social business venture.
“Mobility empowers access to education and future independence,” he said. “That is our motto.”