Wheel of Fortune
Thursday, April 2, 2015
The wheelchair-friendly ramp at the five-star where this interview is conducted leads up to three small steps — ones we skip over happily to proceed to the coffee shop and talk the talk. Until Archi Serrao, CEO of Ostrich Mobility, the only company in India to own a patent on electric wheelchairs, asks a pertinent question. “How is the wheelchair supposed to go over those three steps?” We’re stumped. It’s situations like these — ordinary for us, obstacles for the vast majority of differently-abled in the country — that make Serrao’s job urgent. In his capacity at Ostrich Mobility, Serrao aims to address three issues — mobility, cost and employment.
And they do all this by offering minute customisations — from electric wheelchairs that can be operated by a user’s chin/ single finger to another that offers a height-adjustable seat so as to be at eye level with customers at the bank. Simple adjustments that make a huge difference to one person’s chances of employment, confidence and ultimately, mobility. But it wasn’t always like this. Serrao discusses their biggest challenge — when they started out in 2004 — working around the lack of infrastructure in India. “There were a couple of local players who would attach motors to a manual wheelchair and make it run, but there was no technology. But after two-three years or doing it we realised that whatever we were building was not suitable for Indian conditions,” he says.
“Without the technology we have now”, they just had a single frame where all four wheels were mounted. “On the Indian terrain, that would make the wheels uneven, especially while turning. We realised we needed to build something completely unique and India-specific,” Serrao says. That is when split frame technology — which powers their electric wheelchairs today, came into being. Coupled with customisations (they’re all made to order, not mass-produced), they make for powerful mobility tools for the differently-abled. With rechargeable batteries, they take between three to 45 days to make depending on the level of customisa-tion and offer a drive range of 10-15 km.
Disability need not always be physical — it could also be the crippling fallout of old age. That’s a realisation that prompted Serrao to target geriatrics with the mobility scooter in 2012. “In the US/UK, many people above age of 70 use a wheelchair independently. In India, even as families are becoming nuclear and senior citizens are left to fend for themselves, there’s also a stigma attached to the use of a wheelchair — until someone falls and breaks a hip bone,” Serrao says. Which is why the mobility scooter targets people above the age of 65, offering customisations just like they do for wheelchairs.