(Summer ’11) Paul Lazarescu ’13

Public Service Fellow Paul Lazarescu ’13 is working with Transitions Foundation in Antigua, Guatemala, helping to develop a hybrid wheelchair that can be used both for everyday and for active use.

Fourth blog- July 29, 2011

Our final wheelchair design. Photo by Juan Carlos Noguera Cardoza

After spending almost a month and a half in Guatemala, I feel that we’ve accomplished a great deal. Our wheelchair is finished and it is currently being used by Vinicio, one of the guys working in the shop. Besides being extremely light for a steel wheelchair (including the wheels, it weighs only 24lbs!), it has numerous additional features: a 2 degree-of-freedom backrest (which can slide both forwards on the frame as well as extending upwards), a horizontally movable axle, and also, an adjustable footrest.

This wheelchair, while it will probably not go into production, might give the Transitions Foundation some good ideas to implement in other wheelchairs – they can test each of the adjustable features on our wheelchair, and adapt them to the other chairs that they build.

In addition to our wheelchair, we also built an off-road extra wheel attachment, which clips onto the footrest of a wheelchair with a modified pick-up truck part. This attachment, now named the “Transitions U-Ride,” will be going into production, at least for many of the shop guys. After seeing Luis use his U-Ride every day, to and from work, many of the other wheelchair users have expressed their interest in having one for themselves.

Now that I’m back home, I realize just how much this trip has changed my outlook on the world. I’ve had the opportunity of immersion in another culture, while at the same time working with some of the funniest and most creative people I have ever met. Although many of the guys in the shop are paralyzed and wheelchair-bound, they don’t let it hamper their activities in any way. In fact, they are happier and enjoy life much more than most people, disabled or not. Their positive attitude and the closeness of their community – I’d even go as far as to call it a family – is something to be admired.

This experience has also taught me that engineering can have a great impact on peoples’ lives. And it’s not always the most technical or advanced designs that are successful – sometimes having an easy and simple way, for example, for someone to get into and out of their wheelchair can have drastic effect on the quality of their life.

I’d like to sincerely thank the MIT Public Service Center and their donors for providing me this amazing opportunity, and for caring about making a difference.

Third Blog- July 7, 2011: [Wheelchair] Basketball Diaries: Hugo Aquino, Dreammaker of Guatemala

Hugo Aquino is in charge of Transitions’ Foundation Workshop, which makes and modifies wheelchairs for disabled Guatemalans. Aquino is also the Captain of Guatemala’s Wheelchair Basketball team and the number one ranked player in the Central American Conference. In this post, MIT student and Transitions intern Paul Lazarescu interviews Aquino.

Hugo looks on to one of his teammate's shots during the Guatemala vs. El Salvador match.

How did you start working at Transitions Foundation?

I started at Transitions in 1997, I think. Alex, Edwin, and I met in the Hermano Pedro Hospital when I was eleven. We met John later – he was a volunteer in the special school. We met John in ’95, and the program started two years later, in ’97.

What is your current job?

Nothing (laughs). I’m in charge of the workshop, where 12 people work. I’ve been workshop boss since the program began in ’97. I really enjoy it. Out of the 12 people in the shop, two people are not disabled. They can help pick up things from the shelves.

Which is your most comfortable wheelchair?

I like both my normal wheelchair and my basketball wheelchair. My everyday wheelchair is a [used] Quickie which came in a container from the U.S. Mickey Kay, a previous volunteer who himself plays wheelchair basketball, gave me my basketball chair a year ago.

What is the most important thing about a wheelchair for you?

For me, it’s comfort. You can sit in the best wheelchairs all day and be relaxed and you won’t hurt your body. It’s also important that my wheelchairs are customized, so all the lengths and widths are perfect for me.

Tell me something about playing wheelchair basketball.

For me, it’s a pastime with my friends. I really enjoy both showing off my skills and also teaching my teammates. I’m looking forward to our game with El Salvador on Wednesday, we’re definitely going to win. [Interviewer's Note: They did win, two games to one.]

How do you get around Antigua?

I drive everyday in my car. I use my wheelchair in the workshop, and I bring it home on the weekends. As I had polio, I can still do some walking, so I don’t usually ride my wheelchair in the street.

What is the route that you take every day?

Everyday I drive from the office to the workshop. I use my wheelchair in the workshop to get around. On Fridays we return to the office in the middle of the day. After lunch, I take my basketball wheelchair from the office to the basketball courts, where we practice our wheelchair basketball.

-Photo of Hugo Aquino by Paul Lazarescu

Second Blog- June 29, 2011: Designing the Perfect Wheelchair

In this post Paul Lazarescu describes the process of designing a wheelchair to suit the rough roads of Antigua, Guatemala. Paul spending the summer in Antigua, working with the Transitions Foundation to design, develop, and test new wheelchair designs and accessories.

Wheelchairs in Guatemala, Part II

Rachel welds the wheelchair

I’ve been in Antigua now for almost four weeks, although it feels like two. We’ve almost finished our wheelchair, and today it is getting fitted with a custom cushion. While initially our most important design metric was the weight, Alex, the President of Transitions, explained that a difference of even something as great as 10 lbs is not a big deal in comparison to a person’s body weight. Much more important, he said, is the durability and adjustability of the chair. To this end, Rachel and I added an extra support bar underneath the chair. We also designed mechanisms for adjusting the backrest height and position, the position of the axle, the height of the footrest, the width of the mudguards, and the height of the caster wheels. So far the feedback from the guys in the shop has been very positive, and we hope to do some testing this week.

During my time here, I’ve seen many patients come into Transitions to get fitted for a chair. Many measurements are taken, and a chair is customized specifically for that user. This is where my co-worker Rachel and I hope our chair (and the mechanisms involved) will have the greatest impact: a chair that is built to be both extremely rugged and incredibly adjustable.

Quite a few of the visiting patients have been children, and we wanted to design a chair that can be easily modified with nothing more than a wrench so it can be adjusted along with a child’s growth.

In addition to our wheelchair, Rachel, Joel (one of the guys in the workshop), Juan Carlos (a industrial design student from Guatemala City), and I have also designed an extra-wheel attachment, which attaches to the front of the wheelchair and helps users drive across the rough cobblestones of Antigua. One of the guys in the shop has been using it with his chair for the past week, and he tells us that it now takes him half the time to get home, as he finds it easier to climb steep and rough slopes. We plan to build a jig to make more of these off-road attachments this upcoming week.

So far, working with Transitions has been an unbelievable experience. Not only are the guys in the shop fantastic designers and builders, but they also have great senses of humor and are fun to be around. Transitions is more like a family than a workplace, and I’ve learned a lot not only in specific manufacturing processes but also about the Guatemalan culture. I’ve picked up a bit of Spanish, too.

First Blog- May 25, 2011: A Wheelchair for Young People in Guatemala

This prototype chair was built at MIT and is in Guatemala now. Photo by K. Railey.

My name is Paul Lazarescu and I’ve just finished my sophomore year at MIT, where I study Mechanical Engineering. I’m spending this summer in Antigua, Guatemala, where I will be working with Transitions Foundation to design and manufacture a wheelchair for active users.

During Wheelchair Design in Developing Countries, a class I took this semester, my team and I have worked on the design of a sports/hybrid wheelchair for developing countries. Twenty-one is the average age of those getting their first wheelchair in Guatemala, so there is a need for a wheelchair that can be used in everyday life but is also designed specifically with an active user in mind.

Working with one of my classmates, Rachel Dias Carlson, I plan to implement our design for a hybrid wheelchair in Antigua. By the end of the summer, we hope to have not only a working, tested, and finalized product, but also a manufacturing process that will allow Transitions to produce more of these chairs.

While we have finished our preliminary design and prototype for an active everyday chair, we have a few ideas for improvements and also we need to test the chair under local conditions. Our chair weighs 27 pounds at the moment, which is great compared to the 42-pound model they currently use in Guatemala. This chair includes a removable backrest, to transform from an everyday chair into an active chair, but we still need to perfect the attachment and removal process. We also want to make our chair more customizable, with the ability to move the center of gravity forward or backwards.

I think the main concern we have is limited time. Although we are not going to be in Guatemala for a long period of time, we hope to at least finish the design of the chair, and, if there is time, work on the manufacturing processes as well.

I’m very excited for my trip, and I can’t wait to get started working on the chair with Transitions!

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