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According to the World Health Organisation, there are an estimated 52 million people worldwide who require a wheelchair for mobility, yet do not have access to one that meets their needs. #HackOnWheels founder Rachael Wallach believes that digital fabrication, open source design and the maker movement can change this.

#HackOnWheels is creating an online library of open source designs and instructions for making fully customisable wheelchairs and their components that anyone can freely use, adapt and develop. The movement has the potential to bring radical change to wheelchair design and the way in which wheelchair users are able to interact and take ownership of their own chairs, through encouraging greater participation and customisation.

The RSA recently supported the first #HackOnWheels London Hackathon, which brought together both wheelchair users and non-wheelchair users from a diverse range of backgrounds to develop ideas and designs. 

One of the key challenges posed at the hackathon was the question of how the nascent #HackOnWheels can make its vision a reality, beginning with building a design library. Sevra Davis, Director of Design and Challenges at the RSA, inspired a solution through her presentation on the RSA’s design challenges such as the Student Design Awards, which asks design students to apply their skills to social, environmental and economic challenges.

Prizes such as the these have the power to motivate, inspire and empower designers to utilise the power of design to benefit society. For #HackOnWheels, with the ambitious aim of curating an ever evolving online library of designs, competitions and challenges have the potential to engage a diverse community of designers, makers and hackers.

Yet, at the same time, this is a movement which aims to do more than just curate online. #HackOnWheels’ objective is to create fully customizable and fully functional wheelchairs. To do so, Rachael has turned to the Maker movement, and the London Hackathon brought together representatives from Ultimaker and Fab Lab London to share their insights on the ability to open up the means of production through makerspaces.

Over the past couple of years, the RSA has been exploring the growth of makerspaces, reflecting on the potential of the maker movement to enable people to have more control over their lives – as workers, consumers and citizens. The act of making is one means of regaining mastery over technology, enabling us to be more self-reliant and boosting our sense of agency. For wheelchair users, the importance of this ability to regain control over the technology essential for mobility is indescribable.  

As a non-wheelchair user and hackathon novice, I left the event with three main realisations. Firstly, that almost every wheelchair user will, at some point, find themselves in an unsuitable wheelchair that does not meet their needs. Secondly, that while ‘hacking’ may be nothing new, as wheelchair users with know-how have adapted and customised their chairs for decades, the internet has the power to democratize this knowledge and makerspaces can do the same for the means of production. Finally, that #HackOnWheels could be the start of a revolution, bringing forward open source designs which put wheelchair users at the heart of the design process.

#HackOnWheels has the potential enable knowledge and expertise to be shared not only in the UK but globally, to make wheelchairs that meet the needs of their users and which are affordable and accessible for all. For now, Rachael and #HackOnWheels have taken up residency at The Machines Room, a Maker Space in East London and are busy learning about the tools they’ll need to quite literally make the vision a reality.

#HackOnWheels is building a movement. If you have expertise in design, engineering, digital fabrication or start-ups and could spare a few hours of your time please get in touch or come to our next makeathon on 16 July at the Machines Room in London.

Molly Gavriel is a #HackOnWheels Ambassador 


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