Wheeling around Haiti



Lelan tries out her new wheelchair as her family looks on.


Like many women living in rural Haiti, Lelan spends her days taking care of her family—cooking, cleaning, and tending to her children. But for her, having suffered paralysis after contracting spinal tuberculosis, each chore is infinitely more difficult. She cannot walk. Instead, she lies on her back and drags her body across the dirt floor of her family’s small hut. When it rains, the palm frond roof leaks, turning the floor into swirls of mud around her. As she only has the strength to move herself no further than about 20 feet at a time, she’s literally cut off from her community.

But this changed last month, as Lelan settled into a brand new RoughRider wheelchair, provided by a collaboration between Zanmi Lasante—PIH’s sister organization in Haiti, the Walkabout Foundation, and Whirlwind Wheelchair International. The partnership recently distributed 350 RoughRider wheelchairs throughout Haiti, bringing unprecedented mobility to patients injured in January’s earthquake, as well as many patients like Lelan, who has been living with her disabilities—and the stigma and abandonment associated with them—for years.

With knobby mountain bike tires and a sturdy, specially designed steel frame, Whirlwind’s RoughRider wheelchairs enable its occupants to go where conventional wheelchairs cannot, wheeling over broken pavement, rocks, roots, mud, and ramp-less curbs that are common  throughout Haiti and other developing countries. In fact, the non-profit organization designed the vehicles in collaboration with wheelchair riders in over 20 developing nations.

The resulting design is a winner, at least for Lelan. “When we first rolled the new RoughRider into her yard, she began clapping and said, ‘Thank you, thank you, now I can go to church,’” recounts Whirlwind’s Rachel Kishton. “She took to her chair quickly and was downright fearless while rolling around her patio. She quickly started figuring out how to move into and around her house.”

Nearby, 12-year-old Vladimir, who suffered a spinal cord injury when the ceiling of his bedroom caved in on him during the earthquake, also tried out his new wheels; as did the village’s local hero, a basketball player who had been paralyzed by injuries sustained during the quake; and Jiler, a middle-aged man who was most likely crippled as a baby by a case of polio.

The wheelchair distribution built on the efforts of ZL’s newly trained Haitian rehab accompagnateurs—community health workers—who identified wheelchair candidates in advance of the team’s arrival. These new accompagnateurs, some of whom are themselves living with disabilities, will be following up with patients to help them get the most out of their new mobility and independence. This includes making sure that each patient, or someone close by, knows how to adjust the wheelchairs and keep up with general maintenance. They are also working to fight stigma and spread awareness of disability issues in the patients’ communities.

The distribution itself offered a good opportunity to begin spreading awareness. While fitting a chair for Paulin, a young girl suffering from cerebral palsy, she and the team decided to conduct the fitting in a public space so that her neighbors could watch and ask questions. “This was great for community awareness and the disability awareness movement—one of the focuses of PIH’s community outreach rehab program,” said Rachel. It wasn’t long before a group of local children had gathered around them. “They seemed very excited for her, and for her new chair,” said Rachel. “But, not nearly as excited as Paulin who was enjoying her first bumpy ride on the road!”