HDI Seminar: Our Mission to Provide Mobility in Developing Countries

Free Wheelchair Mission (FWM) started in 2001, when we discovered the ugly truth that there were over 70 million people with mobility disabilities – living without wheelchairs.  These people live in developing countries.  At that time, the common solution was to serve these people with conventional wheelchairs (either brand new or refurbished used wheelchairs) intended for use in developed counties.  At that time fewer than 0.2% of these 70 million needs was met. 

The world needed a simpler and less expensive solution, and one that was designed to withstand the rigors of the developing world.  We started with one wheelchair design, and soon realized we needed to include higher levels of adjustment to compensate for the varieties of disabilities found in developing countries, partially do the complete absence of services.  We now offer three models of basic wheelchairs which we find appropriate for approximately half of those in need. 

FWM is a non-profit, funded through donations.  We insist that our wheelchairs are given for free to the user, with absolutely no discrimination.  Our only requirement is the user must need a wheelchair.  It costs $80 to manufacture, ship and have delivered a wheelchair in one of 93 countries

Early in 2017 we provided our first million wheelchairs.  Our goal is to provide the second million by 2025, in half the time. 


Don Schoendorfer, the Founder and President of Free Wheelchair Mission, is a testament to what is possible with a background in biomedical engineering and a calling for change. While vacationing in Morocco, Don and his wife, Laurie, witnessed the plight of a woman with disabilities, struggling to drag herself across a dirt road. Ignored by the surrounding crowd and barely evading traffic, the woman’s hardship was a scene that Don and Laurie would never forget upon their return to Southern California.
Following the transformative experience, Don turned his God-given talents to solving the problem of immobility in developing nations. His hands-on, inventive approach guided him in designing three low-cost, high-durability, and functional wheelchairs that have provided mobility to more than one million people in 93 developing countries. Don attended Columbia University as an undergraduate and earned a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from MIT. Professionally, Prior to starting Free Wheelchair Mission, Don oversaw R&D departments in numerous biomedical companies, including Haemonetics and Baxter Healthcare. He holds more than 60 U.S. Patents in the field of medical technology and is considered a pioneer in practical transdermal diagnostics as well as blood cell separation technology. Don continually engages his passion for innovation and progress. His dedication to the mission is unwavering, as he develops new products and ideas that bring mobility to people in developing countries across the globe.