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Building better lives by design

ASME students will develop a new wheelchair design that will help Mel West, pictured here with the Personal Energy Transportation's (PET) hand-cranked design, provide mobility to those in need throughout the world. Photo by Vicki Hodder

For more than 10 years, Columbia resident Mel West has worked to build hand-cranked wheelchairs for disabled people in need throughout the world.

West has helped mwisore than 13,000 people who othere would be immobilized through Personal Energy Transportation (PET), a faith-based nonprofit organization he founded and directs that is dedicated to providing mobility for the impoverished. Now West wants to extend the PET program’s helping hand to those whose disabilities are too severe for the organization’s standard hand-cranked wheelchair.

“There’s such devastation that comes from having to crawl over the dirt and rocks,” said Gene Moore, a Columbia resident who volunteers for PET. “When you can make these people mobile, they can have a new life.”

Mizzou Engineering’s American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) student chapter aims to help offer that new life to more people by designing and building a more conventional wheelchair sturdy enough for rough roads or trails. That modified wheelchair—called a “push PET”—must be easy to assemble, adjustable and made of wood so it can be repaired if necessary in areas where metal is not available, ASME leaders said.

The Mizzou students hope to build four versions of the push PET, each with a different type of seat to serve people with varying abilities, said ASME President Brad Boehm, a senior in mechanical engineering. ASME members plan to start designing the wheelchair in October and aim to finish building it by next April, Boehm said.

“It sounds like it definitely could be a challenge, because you don’t know exactly who you’re designing it for and people have different needs,” Boehm said.

Yet that need is disturbingly prevalent. An estimated 21 million people throughout the world are immobilized due to polio, landmine injuries and other impairments, West said.

Of those people, roughly 17.5 million can use either a conventional wheelchair or PET’s hand-cranked wheelchair, he said. But that leaves 3.5 million people who live in areas where conventional chairs cannot travel and are unable to crank PET’s current wheelchair, West said.

While PET does have a prototype push wheelchair, West said he hopes Mizzou’s engineering group can devise something easier to use and build than the existing version. ASME’s Boehm is similarly hopeful the group’s efforts will yield significant improvements.

“We’ve got a creative group, I know,” Boehm said. “So I’m hoping we can come up with something that will help people with disabilities a bit more.”

Contact Mel West at 573/886-7877 or petproject@giftofmobility.org for more information on how you can help.