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Houston Matters

Engineer Designs Cheap, Durable Wheelchair to Distribute to Developing Countries

Don Schoendorfer is a biomedical engineer with a doctorate from MIT. So when he started tinkering with parts from old lawn chairs and bicycles, some thought he was losing his mind. His wife wasn’t a fan of all the debris in their garage either. But Don was working to make prototype after prototype of a […]

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Don Schoendorfer, founder of Free Wheelchair Mission, and Aaron Jean of the Houston chapter, pose with the organization's latest wheelchair design. (Photo: Michael Hagerty)
Don Schoendorfer, founder of Free Wheelchair Mission, and Aaron Jean of the Houston chapter, pose with the organization’s latest wheelchair design. (Photo: Michael Hagerty)

Don Schoendorfer is a biomedical engineer with a doctorate from MIT. So when he started tinkering with parts from old lawn chairs and bicycles, some thought he was losing his mind. His wife wasn't a fan of all the debris in their garage either.

But Don was working to make prototype after prototype of a better – and above all cheaper – wheelchair. His goal: to make it easier and more cost-effective to give wheelchairs to the disabled in developing countries.

Don now heads the non-profit Free Wheelchair Mission, which does just that and is opening a Houston office. Don – along with Aaron Jean from the new Houston branch – talked with Michael Hagerty recently about how the program works, the difference it's making in lives, and how the wheelchair design has evolved over the years.

But first, Don told us about what inspired him to start tinkering with wheelchair designs in the first place – something he saw on a vacation almost 40 years ago.