Because this was my first attendance at the PMG Conference, and as I was attending on my own, I was filled with some trepidation prior to the event. But how unnecessary my fears were…. how welcoming and friendly everyone was, and how interesting all the talks and exhibitions were.
On the first morning, following the welcome address from PMG chair, Susan Gold, all attendees heard a truly inspiring talk from Rachael Wallach, the founder and CEO of Disrupt Disability. For me, Rachael’s talk was about living, being independent with no limits, and having choice.
At 18 years old, Rachael broke her L1 (the lumbar area of her back) and, since then, has been a wheelchair user. She told us that during her rehabilitation, when it was taking her 10 minutes and two falls to walk just 10 paces, she realised that she was much quicker in a wheelchair, plus she developed a six-pack! She realised that her main challenge was not her legs but her own attitudes, and those of others, to her as a wheelchair user. Others, such as those of us in a multi-disciplinary team, judged what her personal goals should be (for example, meaningful activity, employment, independent living), whereas Rachael felt that her pre-accident personal life goals should continue (travelling, study, boyfriend, job, house, husband etc). What was reinforced by her talk is that we should all remember to be person focussed; it can be too easy to try to fix an apparent problem, rather than work out what’s important for the individual.
Since her accident Rachael (pictured) has travelled independently to many places in the world, and she found travelling in Asia particularly liberating, because she couldn't tell if she was being stared at because she was white, a woman, or in a wheelchair!
Rachael wishes the wheelchair to stop being the international symbol for disability, because a wheelchair does not disable a person - it enables them. She proposes that as more people in the world wear glasses than use wheelchairs, perhaps glasses should become the international disability symbol!
Following Rachael’s talk I investigated further, and saw on Quora that 74% of people in the UK (approximately 50 million) either wear corrective eyewear or have had laser eye surgery, and both Disability Sport and NHS England report that there are only around 1.2 million wheelchair users in the UK. So, the new logo for disability “enability” is glasses!
Continuing with the glasses analogy, Rachael stated that she wants there to be a greater choice for people using wheelchairs, similar to the choices available for people trying different glasses frames or, indeed, shoes. Her personal look is very important to her, and she is now developing personalised and modular wheelchairs.
She set up Disrupt Disability (which will soon be rebranded as Limber) with the aim of designing great looking and varied wheelchair products for adults at a reasonable price. Customisable modular systems have been developed for different indoor and outdoor scenarios, so that people can continually adapt parts of their wheelchair for everyday life: interchangeable wheels for snow, sand or rough terrain; foot plates with varying angles and heights to accommodate high heels; back rests for lounging about in; fashion seats for special occasions. Rachael hopes that switching wheelchair parts will become just like someone changing into another pair of shoes. She gave a lovely example of a bride fitting white modular parts to her wheelchair for her big day.
In order to understand why great wheelchair designs often do not get into the marketplace Rachael has completed a Master of Business Administration degree at Stanford Business School. She has concluded that there is not enough finance and backing available due firstly to the risk for the investor, and secondly because the relatively small wheelchair market is not interesting enough for many investors. Rachael is therefore currently marketing her Wheelwear range as attractive for investors, and she hopes to launch and start selling in the next 12 months.
Members of PMG can view Rachael Wallach's presentation online by clicking here.