Think about the last 20 buildings you walked around in: your apartment complex, your workplace, Sea World â€“ whatever. Now, how many of them were handicap accessible? Five, ten, all twenty? Ever since the Americans with Disabilities Act, there has been a concentrated effort on making American a friendlier landscape for people with mobility issues.
Today, all hospitals and medical facilities are required to be wheelchair accessible. This is due in large part to the paths forged by many champions along the way. One of those champions was Ralph Braun.
If the name sounds familiar, itâ€™s because he is the namesake of the Braun Corporation, a global distributor of electric scooters and mobility aids.
Ralph Braun eventually became a hero of the accessibility movement, though he would remain relatively unknown. Despite his incredible contributions to the world, Braunâ€™s achievements have gone largely unsung even though we come into contact with the products of his lifeâ€™s work nearly every day of our lives.
The Story Begins in Indiana
Braun was diagnosed with the spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a genetic, degenerative disease that resulted in mobility impairment at a young age. At age 15 he had lost his ability to walk entirely and used a heavy iron wheelchair to get around. By his twenties he had completed his education and secured a job at a nearby hospital as a clerk.
The wheelchair, borne of the times, would leave him winded and exhausted at dayâ€™s end. Necessity pulled him into a farm workshop where he experimented with machinery, electric wiring and the automobile parts lying around. The product of this would become the worldâ€™s first electric scooter â€“ an invention that would make life easier for mobility patients and bring joy to generations of bored adolescents in grocery stores.
The tri-wheel scooter aided in Braun’s daily transportation to and from work, but when his job was relocated to a more distant locale, the bitter Indiana winter made it hard to travel the extra distance, even with increased mobility. This new hurdle pulled Braun back into the shop to further innovate. When he emerged, he had outfitted a discarded mail truck with a lift that could bear his weight and that of his tri-wheel.
At this point, Braun was taking orders for Tri-Wheels from other disabled people in his area and had formed the Save-A-Step Manufacturing Co. to produce them. Despite burgeoning demand, it was a small operation with Braun working straight through the night to fulfill orders. The stress of juggling a full-time job with family and the new business eventually led to a choice between work and his company. He chose his company and proceeded to completely build an industry from the ground up.
The Braun Corporation became the first and leading producer of electric scooters, wheelchair accessible vans and other mobility aids. The advent of a mobility industry created a space for other innovators to come in and create new products designed to make life easier for disabled people. You might say these are some of the first steps on the long road that led to the passage of the ADA and increased integration of wheelchair accessibility into public and government buildings.
[box type=”note”]Of course, there is still a long way to go, but Ralph Braunâ€™s stalwart inventiveness is a picture of American ingenuity and a model for future generations.[/box]