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Speedy wheelchairs spark opportunities in Colombia

China Daily | Updated: 2020-12-04 10:25
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Martin Londono rides his wheelchair at a skate park in Medellin, Colombia, on Nov 18. [FERNANDO VERGARA/AP]

MEDELLIN, Colombia-Wilson Guzman lost the use of his legs at age 17 when he was shot in the back while trying to recover a stolen bicycle in his hometown of Medellin, Colombia.

Two decades later, he glides through the city's streets using an electric hand-bike attached to the front of his wheelchair. He recently gave a tour of Medellin's parks to seven people who followed him down bike lanes and up steep hills on similar vehicles.

"Every person who gets on these wheelchairs leaves with a smile,"Guzman said. "They also learn what it's like to be in the shoes of someone with a disability."

The wheelchair tours that Guzman leads once a week are the latest tourist attraction in a city slowly shedding its reputation for drug violence. It has become one of Colombia's most visited destinations.

They're organized by MATT-which stands for Mobility, Accessibility, Time and Work-a startup founded last year that aims to create jobs for people with disabilities.

For the equivalent of $25, people who can and can't walk can get on the electric wheelchairs and take a three-hour tour of the city's riverside parks. That includes stops at a coffee shop and a bar that does beer tasting. The devices accelerate quickly and can reach speeds of 30 kilometers per hour.

"We think this will be a winning proposal in terms of education and inclusion," said company founder Martin Londono.

The tours started in October and their routes are still being adjusted. Londono said he wanted to offer them earlier this year but had to delay the launch due to the coronavirus pandemic and travel restrictions imposed by the Colombian government, which were only lifted in September.

The handcycles, built and designed with the help of local bike workshops, are powered by rechargeable batteries and latch onto wheelchairs with metal bars and hooks. The steering and brakes are like those on a regular bicycle, while acceleration only requires pushing a button on one of the handles.

Londono, 31, started to work on the handcycles four years ago to improve his own mobility. He lost the use of his legs after breaking his spinal cord in a traffic accident at age 18.

Londono took inspiration from Batec, a Spanish company that makes electric hand-bikes and sells them for between 4,000 and 6,000 euros ($4,845 to $7,265). He wanted to make a version that was more affordable for people in Colombia, where the minimum wage is about $250 a month.

Multiple attempts

After several attempts, Londono managed to build a functional hand-bike for himself, but his efforts to sell them for around $2,000 were not successful.

"We realized that most people with disabilities in Colombia have very meager incomes," said Londono, who grew up in a wealthy neighborhood of Medellin and graduated from an international school."They have no employment and many can't even afford a regular wheelchair."

Londono changed his business model and founded MATT. With his savings and those of his business partners, Londono has built a fleet of 15 handcycles. Three of them have been leased to people with disabilities who work for a delivery service set up by MATT this year.

Londono charges the delivery workers a monthly fee of $90 and said they will be allowed to keep the handbikes once they have paid for them.

Agencies Via Xinhua

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