Chris Jardine gingerly reached out with his fingerless hands to touch the new wheelchair he was just given. He lifted his body into the new chair, but after a moment he pulled himself out and went back into his old wheelchair.
“I want to wait and get up Christmas morning and have this be my Christmas gift,” Jardine said in his 10-by-10 room located in an old hospital in Mahaica, Guyana. Jardine was in dire need of a new wheelchair. His old one had loose and broken wheels, making transportation especially dangerous and difficult. The new chair would be more comfortable and safe for him as he dodged the holes and rocks in the streets of his neighborhood.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is providing four wheelchair models and job opportunities for wheelchair recipients around the world to address their unique needs. The religious faith of the recipients is not a factor.
Since 2001, the humanitarian services of the Church have distributed more than a quarter of a million wheelchairs in 95 countries.
The wheelchairs have been designed for various terrains and needs so they can be used in homes, on paved sidewalks or on rough roads with potholes.
“The great thing is the more options you give people, the more successful it is for them,” said Sharon Eubank, manager of major initiatives for Church humanitarian aid. “If the chair fits them they will use it more.”
“Around 3 percent of people in South Africa who need a wheelchair actually receive one,” said John Elks, the Church area welfare manager in Africa. “There are many people who need mobility, but they need the right kind of mobility.”
An estimated 60 million people in the world who need wheelchairs do not have one.
The four wheelchair models that have been made available for the Church’s program include:
- A standard hospital chair with hard rubber tires made for indoor use which comes in five sizes.
- An outdoor wheelchair similar to the indoor model, but fitted with larger and stronger inflatable bicycle tires.
- The “Rough Rider” wheelchair, which has a longer wheel base to prevent tipping and 6 inch front tires providing shock absorption. This chair travels smoother over soft sand or rocky conditions and is available in four sizes. This chair is designed by the Church’s partner Whirlwind International.
- A three-wheel wheelchair, which has a longer wheel base with one wheel out front in tricycle style. This chair is very stable in rough physical conditions and is specifically made for rural environments. This chair requires individual measuring for a custom fit.
Along with providing more appropriate kinds of chairs, the Church is also emphasizing local production of some wheelchairs and the chance for recipients to be involved. This aspect of the initiative has been designed so markets are not flooded with imported chairs, hurting the local economy. Supporting local factories also augments the repair options for the wheelchairs because local parts are more available and mending can take place more quickly.
In addition, local manufacturing and repair means jobs are available for disabled individuals. The Church currently buys from factories in Kenya and Vietnam, where wheelchair recipients are employed. A third factory employing wheelchair recipients will open in South Africa in June.
“Providing employment for people improves their ability to support and look after themselves as well as their family,” Elks said. “They are also able to believe in themselves and make contributions they were not capable of before.”
“It isn’t really about the wheelchairs,” Eubank says. “It is about what the individuals want to do next. Do they want to get a job? Go to school? That is the impact of this initiative.”