EC.721 | Spring 2009 | Undergraduate

Wheelchair Design in Developing Countries


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1 hour / session

Lab: 2 hours / week, as arranged by groups


Course Instructors:

  • Amos Winter, V
  • Amy Smith

Lab Instructors:

  • Mario Bollini
  • Forrest Funnel
  • Gwyn Jones
  • Harry O’Hanley
  • Debbie Schapira
  • Tish Scolnik

Team Mentors:

  • Joost Bonsen — developmental entrepreneurship expert
  • Ralf Hotchkiss — developing countries wheelchair expert
  • Rory McCarthy — handcycle specialist, builder and racer
  • Aaron Wheeler — wheelchair designer and appropriate technology specialist

WDDC Partners

Course Structure

The course units are broken into 2-2-5 corresponding to hours per week of Lecture-Lab-Homework.


Each student is required to attend the lectures but is allowed to miss two during the semester. More than two absences without permission from one of the instructors will result in failing the course.


Each project team will choose its own lab time. The team needs to schedule two hours a week to meet with their lab instructor. The lab session is an important time to develop your project and get advice from you lab instructor. Set aside the same time every week to meet in order to insure everyone can attend.


Homework will consist primarily of readings and short assignments to be handed in. Assignments will be due one week after being assigned. As the semester progresses less homework will be given to allow more time for the project.


The course will be graded from A-F. Lab instructors will assign grades for all students in their section. Instructors will collaborate to ensure that there is equitable grading between lab sections. Half of the total grade is based on individual work and the other half is based on teamwork. Class and lab participation grades are based on both attendance and quality of in-class activity.

The grading breakdown is:

Class participation/homework 10%
Strategy presentation 15%
Concept presentation 15%
Most critical module (MCM) presentation 15%
Final presentation and prototype 25%
Team Web site 20%

Each teams’ progress will be judged largely on presentations given at each project milestone.

Term Project

Students will form into lab groups, 3 to 5 members plus a lab instructor, to work on a project (either from the Web site or proposed by a student) for the term. While participating in the project, each group will have the following responsibilities:


The project is meant to be a true collaboration between MIT students, experts who work in each project field, and local wheelchair technicians in developing countries. Each team is required to send a weekly update email to both the project mentors and local partners to demonstrate their progress and obtain feedback/ideas. Mentors and local partners will be assigned to project teams after the teams have been formed.

Group meetings

Each project group is required to meet once a week for two hours with their lab instructor. It is up to the group and lab instructor to choose the best meeting time for all, which does not have to be the scheduled class lab time. The group is encouraged to pick a time that overlaps with open hours of facilities that might be useful to the project (e.g. the Hobby Shop, Edgerton Shop, Foundry, etc).


Each group will need to produce the following deliverables:

  • A PowerPoint presentation for the Strategy, Concept, MCM, and Final presentation milestones.
  • A poster and presentation to be presented at the MIT museum in Lec #26. The poster and presentation should summarize the team’s work. Teams should also strive to have a prototype finished to show visitors of the museum.
  • Prototypes: A physical solution to each teams’ MCM will be presented at the MCM presentation. For the final presentation, a functioning proof-of-concept prototype is expected. For example, if a team designs a new wheelchair frame, a fully-functioning device that demonstrates all the important features of the design and the manufacturability of the product is expected. The final project does not have to be a polished, refined product, but should be usable. For teams doing business plans or other projects that do not require hardware, a solution to the biggest obstacle of the project is expected at the MCM presentation, and a full plan of how to implement the group’s work into a local partner workshop is expected at the final presentation. The final project should be developed to a point where it can be brought to the developing world and quickly made into a fully functioning prototype for further testing.

Team Web Sites

Each team is required to make a Web site defining their project, introducing the team members, and chronicling the development of each milestone. The purpose of this requirement is to make all of the technology from WDDC opensource for the rest of the world. A Web site update will be due at each project milestone. Summer fellows that continue WDDC projects will be required to update the Web site corresponding to their project with their summer work. Teams’ Web sites will be posted on the MIT Mobility Lab Web site.



The class has a materials budget of approx. $4000. Teams will not have a fixed budget, as some teams will have to buy more things than others. Anything that costs more than $100 should be cleared with the instructor. If you would like to purchase an item you can either:

  • Tell Amos where to buy it
  • Buy it yourself and submit your receipt for reimbursement


The following manufacturing facilities will be accessible to WDDC students for their group projects:

  • M-Lab/D-Lab workshop: This shop has many general prototyping tools and materials. It also has many materials found in developing countries. Dennis has a lot of experience with appropriate technology. This shop will be available 24/7 on the conditions that people only use tools on which they are trained and that they work with a partner.
  • The Edgerton Shop: This shop is good for machining and cutting metal parts.
  • The Hobby Shop: This shop is good for woodworking and has a waterjet.
  • The MIT Foundry: This shop is where to go to get things welded and learn to weld.


WDDC has multiple locally-made wheelchairs and handcycles that teams can use. Teams should not destroy any of these devises, but are welcome to modify or use parts from them. If a team would like to make a “permanent modification” to one of these devices, ask an instructor first. Also, M-Lab has tons of bicycle parts from developing countries around the world that can be use for prototyping.


Utilize your Mentors, Community Partners, and Lab Instructors to the fullest. They have a wealth of knowledge in your project area and will greatly broaden the skill set of your team.


WDDC has funding to support students for Summer 2009 to implement technology generated in the class into partner wheelchair workshops. More fellowships through the MIT Public Service Center may be available depending on the strength of each student’s application. Those who would like a fellowship will have to propose a project (most likely a continuation of their class project) within the guidelines of one of the PSC fellowships (Independent, Network, or Focus). To be fair to all interested students, proposals will be submitted to, judged by, and awarded through the PSC. Alison Hynd, coordinator for the fellowships and the IDEAS competition, will be coming to class to talk about all funding opportunities to continue work from WDDC.



Introduction to wheelchairs in developing countries

Review potential projects

2 Wheelchair/Trike relay race around campus  

2008 summer fellow presentations on last year’s projects

Guest speaker: Alison Hynd, MIT Public Service Center, on summer fellowships


Designing wheelchairs for the developing world

Deterministic design process

Choose project teams
5 Guest Speaker: Joost Bonsen on developmental entrepreneurship

Hold first lab meeting

Contact team mentors and community partners

6 Guest speakers: Abdullah Munish and Fatuma Acan Define functional requirements
7 Strategy presentations Strategy presentations due
8 Guest speaker: Amy Smith and Amy Banzaert - Appropriate technology, idea to product, successfully implementing technologies  

Discussion of appropriate and inappropriate technologies

Wheelchair role-play

“Power of Persons with Disabilities, Advocacy and the Challenges” Guest talk by Maryan Amaral, Aero Inc.

Results from Tanzanian Wheelchair Foundation Study

10 Wheelchair Biomechanics/Ergonomics and design for human use  
11 Power output test up ramp in basement  
12 Manufacturing processes and strategies Concept presentations
13 Product design and critique of existing wheelchair designs  
14 Material science/mechanics of materials/welding with Mike Tarkanian  
15 Material science/mechanics of materials/welding with Mike Tarkanian  
16 Watch “Murderball” in class Accelerate project work outside of class
17 Finish “Murderball” and watch parts of “Emanuel’s Gift”  
18 Guest speaker: Ralf Hotchkiss, on his career and designing wheelchairs Most critical module (MCM) presentations
19 Material properties and performance  

Guest Speaker: Prof. David Gordon Wilson on human-powered machines

Review wheelchair designs and how they contribute to body image

21 Guest Speaker: Rory McCarthy on handcycle design and racing  
22 Project work  
23 Project work (cont.)  
24 Project work (cont.)  
25 Project work (cont.) Poster and presentation for MIT museum
26 Project work (cont.)  
27 Final presentation session Final presentation of project with a working prototype

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2009
Learning Resource Types
Demonstration Videos
Image Gallery
Lecture Notes
Projects with Examples