In France, 1.8 million people use a wheelchair on a daily basis, and 1 in 3 people will need one at some point in their lives.
Many of those who live or have lived through the experience of using a wheelchair for long periods of time will testify to the difficulty they sometimes face in the eyes of others.
For some, this difficulty is the pain of not quite fitting in with the ‘norm‘ and not having the freedom to hide it. For others, it’s a feeling of shame that comes with the impression of being considered ‘weak‘. There are a variety of reasons for feeling unwell, and it is not uncommon to see people who use wheelchairs but who do not want to leave their homes, or to meet people who would benefit from using a wheelchair but who categorically refuse to do so.
What we believe, therefore, is that to be a wheelchair user who feels good about himself, you have to start by feeling good about your wheelchair.
However, it has to be said that in France, as elsewhere in the world, the vast majority of wheelchairs on the market are not particularly sexy. This is the first part of the problem to which we are proposing an answer:
How can we offer beautiful wheelchairs that will make their users feel proud ?
Because all disabilities are different, there is a very wide range of wheelchairs available in France, so that everyone can find the wheelchair that best suits their needs. But this goes hand in hand with an equally wide range of prices : from $300 for the entry-level model to $10k for a top-of-the-range made-to-measure manual wheelchair; and between $1,000 and $30k for electric wheelchairs.
Of course, public and private organisations may cover the cost, but very often the person with reduced mobility still has to pay a significant amount to complete the purchase. The problem is that if the person chooses a wheelchair that is more expensive than other models, it’s because they are confident that this wheelchair is the one that will best compensate for their disability and that they can’t really do anything else.
This leads to the second part of the problem:
How can we ensure that wheelchairs are less expensive for comparable performance and/or comfort ?
Wooden wheelchairs were the historic construction material for wheelchairs until the mid-twentieth century, when they disappeared completely in favour of metal-framed wheelchairs, which are better suited to mass production.
But the emergence of new manufacturing technologies and renewed consumer interest in natural materials in the context of the environmental crisis is making the use of wood in wheelchairs relevant once again.
Indeed, however novel it may be in the current range of medical equipment, using wood as the main material for the frame of a wheelchair offers a number of advantages.
Firstly, wood gives a warm, clean and timeless look to the wheelchairs Paul has developed. And because it’s easy to work and shape, it’s fully compatible with the creation of made-to-measure wheelchairs. Made-to-measure wheelchairs are adapted to the morphology of their recipient thanks to the precise adjustment of a number of parameters during manufacture: backrest height, seat width and depth, and the position of the footrest, for example.
Wood also opens the way to an unlimited variety of innovative designs: it’s possible to create a style to suit every user, from a wheelchair with sober lines to one with curves.
What’s more, wood is a renewable resource par excellence. It is largely produced in France under sustainable forest management. What’s more, the design method and manufacturing techniques used for the wooden wheelchairs also mean that they can be built by recycling wood that has already had a first life. All the prototypes, for example, were built from building site fencing.
Carefully chosen and judiciously shaped, wood is a material with a very interesting strength-to-weight ratio. Finally, the manufacture of a wooden wheelchair requires relatively simple tools compared with those needed to make conventional wheelchairs. The skills needed to carry out the manufacturing operations would lend themselves well to training in the future production workshop of a team made up of people on vocational rehabilitation schemes and/or workers with disabilities.