Over the past 20 years, UCP Wheels for Humanity (or UCP Wheels) has worked to make mobility accessible to everyone. Since 1995, UCP Wheels has provided mobility to 350,000 children and adults in 72 countries. UCP is an international non-profit organization with a vision of a future in which people with disabilities are fully included members of their societies and the organization realizes that the first step in achieving this is mobility. Its staff, which includes people with disabilities, works side-by-side with global agencies, including the World Health Organization, United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Google.org and local organizations composed of people with disabilities and the health professionals that serve them, to bring this basic human right to everyone.
UCP Wheels started from humble beginnings as grassroots organization in 1995 as the result of a small group of volunteers’ deep concern for individuals with physical disabilities in developing countries who were without opportunity because they couldn’t access the tool they needed most – a wheelchair. What began as a one-time project to collect, repair, and deliver 130 wheelchairs to people in Guatemala became an experience that initiated the formal incorporation of Wheels for Humanity as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 1996.
As the number of people served grew with each year, so did the group’s organizational capabilities. In 2007, they joined with United Cerebral Palsy of Los Angeles, Ventura, and Santa Barbara Counties to become UCP Wheels for Humanity, which introduced a network of new supporters to the cause and strengthened our management, infrastructure, and governance.
Globally there are an estimated one billion people with disabilities. Of these individuals, approximately 70 million are in need of a wheelchair for basic mobility, of which over 85 percent of the children, women and men do not have access to a wheelchair. This means that 60 million people around the world are robbed of their independence, and their freedom to become educated, provide for their families or be part of their communities. And the rest of the world is robbed of their talents and contributions.
UCP Wheels for Humanity and Google.org will be aligning to lift the voice of wheelchair users all around the world. This important project will bring voices that have rarely been heard, to the decision table with governments, manufacturers, humanitarian and international standards organizations.
In each country UCP Wheels for Humanity’s programs focus on breaking down the barriers that prevent individuals with disabilities from accessing the wheelchairs and services they need to reach their full potential. Most often, this requires initiatives in clinical training, product procurement, empowerment and advocacy. The goal is to develop a local self-sustaining system that not only provides quality products and therapeutic services to those in need right now, but also creates a sustainable infrastructure that allows the communities to meet the evolving and growing needs of their citizens. Today’s global population is aging and, between now and 2030, the number of older people in less developed countries is projected to increase by 140 percent. As we age, we each will need assistive devices to continue with our daily activities.
After many years of experience and lessons learned UCP Wheels has adapted our model to focus on systemic changes. A challenge in nearly every country we work is the insufficient supply-chain of appropriate wheelchairs. The wheelchairs that are produced today are designed for the wealthy markets of the U.S., Europe and other developed industries. These products are not designed for the context of less resourced settings and are not affordable. UCP Wheels along with other social enterprises have designed wheelchairs specifically to be durable, usable in rough terrain, affordable, to meet the unique needs of each person using it.
Every location has the need for a wide range of wheelchairs to meet the demographics of their community. An adult with a spinal cord injury, a child with cerebral palsy, or an elderly individual, all need different products and services. Additionally, many rehabilitation services globally are small, with limited funds to purchase large volumes of wheelchairs. To address this barrier UCP Wheels developed a hub where products designed for less resourced settings that have been tested to meet international quality standards, are purchased and stored in a single location. This allows for rehabilitation centers to purchase any volume of product they need in any variety and have it shipped to them within a very short time frame. Ultimately this allows for each wheelchair user to get the product that best meets their need.
UCP Wheels is also developing and contributing to global initiatives. As part of the Global Cooperation on Assistive Technologies under the World Health Organization (WHO) we have participated in the development of the 50 Priority Assistive Product List (APL). The APL will be provided to Ministries of Health around the world to guide them on which assistive products should be available to their citizens. As a secondary impact the list also drives market competition, eventually reducing the costs of the devices and making them more globally affordable.
Ultimately, the APL will establish a global standard for service and training for all of the mobility items on the list.
UCP Wheels for Humanity’s alliance with Google.org will build on this work and assist in elevating the voice of wheelchairs users. As part of the global effort to ensure that every individual who needs a wheelchair has one, we need to make sure we are providing the right wheelchairs and service that has the greatest benefit for each wheelchair user. How can we know this without asking?
It sounds simple, but it’s not. The wheelchair users being referred referring to, live in the center of Java, rural communities of Zambia, dangerous barrios of El Salvador and other hard to access regions. The great news is technology has advanced, cellular phone coverage is nearly global and these new technologies have improved communication.
Knowing this, the ‘Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities’ was launched in May of 2015 and put $20 million in Google.org grants behind nonprofits using emerging technologies to increase independence for people living with disabilities. With a $1 million, three-year grant from Google.org, UCP Wheels will bring the voice of people with disabilities to the forefront in policy and philanthropy decisions. Ronald Cohen, CEO of UCP Wheels states, “We are excited to be aligned with Google.org as we work together to make dynamic strides in connecting individuals with disabilities to innovative resources that will bring them independence and integration in our global community.”
UCP Wheels is developing a system for gathering both subjective and objective data from users in less-resourced settings all over the world. UCP Wheels will use sensors to collect data on wheelchair usage patterns and environment, as well as SMS surveys to learn about user satisfaction and impacts on education, income, community participation and health. The combined data will provide key insights into which wheelchairs are most effective in a range of conditions, users preferences and overall impacts. Through SMS surveys, even remote users will be able to submit a review of their chair in their own words – bringing their voice directly into the conversation on how best to serve their needs. This global wheelchair performance project aims to answer basic effectiveness questions and drive future funding to a problem that affects 70 million people worldwide.
Through this initiative, UCP Wheels for Humanity and Google.org will build the infrastructure to collect an unprecedented scale of data from wheelchair users globally. Once the infrastructure is built, it can be implemented anywhere and provide real comparative data.
Since different chairs and clinical services are needed to accommodate the varying needs of people with disabilities, this data is crucial to ensure users have the best wheelchair to maximize their health and independence. Once decision makers are better informed, policies and programs can be developed that maximizes benefits for people with disabilities.
“At Google.org, we support organizations that offer innovative solutions to complex challenges. We’re thrilled to back UCP Wheels for Humanity as they help build a world that works for everyone,” said Brigitte Gosselink, Head of the Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities.
UCP Wheels is working with governments and global alliances to transform health systems to better serve people with disabilities. The group works hand in hand with governments at local and national levels to integrate wheelchairs and other assistive devices into their health and insurance systems, and to provide the necessary products and training to health personnel to make sure that equipment can be provided safely and effectively on a long-term basis. UCP Wheels is also working to strengthen the rehabilitation sector, and wheelchair provision services within, by working with governments and national professional associations to create and enforce standards for care and protocols for services. Though long-term changes are often slow to come to fruition, UCP Wheels is invested in the hard work of building systems that will leave a lasting legacy in the lives of people with disabilities and their countries’ development.
Mobility and independence are just the start for people with disabilities living their lives on their terms. Through adaptive sports sleep-away camps for youths, peer and family support groups, business training and job placement programs, UCP Wheels helps newly mobile individuals to make new connections and begin participating in their communities. Their programs have national impact and global relevance, and help push the boundaries and preconceptions of what people with disabilities in developing countries believe they deserve and can expect.
In response to the dire needs of the people they serve, UCP Wheels began by refurbishing donated wheelchairs from the United States, bringing them up to factory standards, shipping them to clinics in developing countries where the cargo was met by volunteer physical and occupational therapists. Through the generosity of these volunteers each individual received a properly fitted wheelchair and our partners were trained to make ongoing adjustments. To learn more please visit www.ucpwheels.org •
Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Google, supports nonprofits that innovate to address humanitarian issues. Google.org was created to pursue, experiment with, and build upon ideas to improve the world, and continues to take an iterative approach to philanthropy today. Google.org develops and invests in pursuits that can have measurable impact on local, regional and global issues, and rallies Google’s people in support of these efforts with a singular goal of creating a better world, faster. Launched in May of 2015, the Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities (g.co/disabilities) committed $20 million in Google.org grants behind nonprofits using emerging technologies to increase independence for people living with disabilities.