Imagine you’re in Southeast Asia, at the base of a 9,000-foot peak. You have a pack strapped to your back, sunglasses, a good compass, and plenty of mosquito repellent. The only issue is footwear: You’re wearing stiletto high heels three sizes too small. Hiking in heels — that’s the metaphor Rachael Wallach, MBA ’18, uses to describe navigating life in a wheelchair.
“When I was backpacking in Laos, I didn’t see anyone pushing themselves in a wheelchair,” Wallach says. “Wheelchairs are often poorly designed because they only work well for one kind of environment.”
Wallach knows the confines of wheelchairs firsthand — an accident when she was 18 years old left her with a spinal injury and the challenge of relearning how to do some of her favorite activities, including hiking, skiing, horseback riding, and kayaking.
“I had personal experience with wheelchairs and I knew customization was vital,” Wallach says.
Last year, the London native came to Stanford Graduate School of Business to begin building the business plan for her company, Disrupt Disability. Her initial goal was to help bring wheelchairs to 20 million people in the world who need them but don’t have access. It wasn’t long before she found herself in a world of prototyping, manufacturing, and supply chain. Thanks to a fellowship with the Center for Social Innovation and the opportunity to design her project through a Startup Garage class, Wallach spent last summer immersed in a world of form and function.
“I’ve been learning a whole new discipline,” Wallach says. “The Center for Social Innovation often straddles two worlds and has helped me navigate both of them.”
In hosting Hackathons in Vienna and London, Wallach discovered that even those who could afford wheelchairs did not have the freedom they needed. An elderly couple may struggle to travel because a wheelchair is too heavy or awkward to pack into a car. A student may have to avoid dirt paths near campus because her wheels are designed for pavement.
“The question that kept coming up was ‘Why can’t we customize the form of our wheelchairs?’ ” Wallach says. “In the same way that a pair of glasses change the way your face looks and also has a big impact on your style — it’s no different with a wheelchair.”
Although customizable wheelchairs do exist, they are expensive, costing upward of $3,000. Disrupt Disability has an open source philosophy, making the technology accessible to anyone. It also uses digital fabrication, enabling manufacturers to try various designs. Through these methods, Wallach aims to cut the price of customizable wheelchairs by more than half.
Besides receiving a summer stipend as part of her fellowship, Wallach has made fruitful connections through Stanford’s Social Entrepreneurship Coach Naomi Baer. Through Baer, Wallach met with a San Francisco Bay Area doctor to discuss her work. “The most valuable thing about the Impact Design Immersion Fellowship is not just the money,” Wallach says. “It’s the coaching, it’s the conversations, it’s the talking.”
Photos by ToniBird Photography