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Jul. 02

Building Inspiration: The Ralph Braun Story

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Joe BakerToday’s guest post is written by Joseph Baker. He enjoys volunteering in his community, writing, and baking. Read his work at professionalintern.com.

White House Honors

On May 9, 2011, Ralph Braun was honored by the White House as one of 14 citizens named a Champion of Change for his work with individuals with disabilities. The Champions of Change were honored specifically for their work in what is known as the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—to level the playing field for the disabled. Some Champion of Change recipients are themselves disabled, yet they strive to make enormous contributions to the lives of all citizens.

Braun's Background

Ralph was diagnosed with spinal muscle atrophy as a young child. By age 15, he was unable to walk and relied on the solidly made "iron monster" wheelchair of the day, but the heavy contraption left him exhausted at the end of the day. "You're dead when you hit the chair for good," he remembers thinking at the time, according to his brief biography on The Braun Corporation website. His Midwestern background prevented any self-pity, however. Between Ralph's determination to remain as mobile as possible and his ability in the disciplines of engineering and technology, the young man was soon tinkering in a cousin's farm shed in search of a better solution.

The Tri-Wheeler

Ralph's tinkering soon resulted in the development of a device he called the Tri-Wheeler. It afforded him the mobility he desired both at home and at his job, where he worked as a clerk at a nearby hospital. The device was so stable and reliable that he used it to commute to and from work regardless of the weather. News of Braun's Tri-Wheeler began to spread by word-of-mouth throughout the disabled community and other wheelchair-bound people began to ask to purchase replicas of his model. He soon began manufacturing Tri-Wheelers in his parents' garage under the name Save-A-Step Manufacturing.

More Adaptations

As documented by his biography, Ralph never shied away from hard work. He continued to work for an outside employer and at his fledgling company, Save-A-Step Manufacturing, commuting between both jobs on his Tri-Wheeler. When his employer moved to a new location miles away, he was forced to reconsider his commute, particularly through the tough Midwest winters. Again, he turned to developing a new solution toward the problem of transporting wheelchair-bound individuals in a vehicle without requiring assistance. For his immediate needs, he adapted a used postal Jeep with the first known wheelchair lift. Later, his company produced specially modified handicapped vans with the now-patented Swing-A-Way™ wheelchair lifts.

The Braun Corporation

By the early 1970s, even Ralph was torn between the demands of his regular employment, Save-A-Step Manufacturing and raising a family. He left his outside employer to devote himself full-time to his business, now called the Braun Corporation. The business has continued to grow by leaps and bounds and came to concentrate on the many aspects of van modifications, minivan modifications and wheelchair lifts. Ralph Braun continues to lead his company with the same goal that sent him into his cousin's shed: ensuring mobility for the physically challenged.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

Former President George H.W. Bush signed the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law in 1990, thereby legally requiring all public facilities to be easily accessible to people with disabilities. While all existing government buildings and some private buildings immediately worked to ensure that their entrances, bathrooms and other facilities were modified to be wheelchair accessible, additional progress in the subsequent two decades has been spotty. Older and historic buildings reportedly found necessary modifications prohibitively expensive or architecturally impossible. Privately owned buildings protested that the law—and the required modifications—was not applicable to them, either legally or morally. Even today, many retail stores and restaurants remain inaccessible to those in wheelchairs.

The Lawyers Arrive

Lately, a number of New York City lawyers have been actively soliciting physically disabled individuals to serve as plaintiffs in suits against various businesses. Because these cases are typically settled with confidentiality clauses, the exact amount that businesses use to settle their suits with the involved lawyers is unknown, but reports indicate that the disabled plaintiffs whose names are used are typically paid $500. Individuals familiar with the law and these types of suits believe the plaintiff lawyers to collect a much, much greater amount of money from the defendants who have usually, within days of receipt of the suit, begun correction of the accessibility issues.

Attorneys bringing these accessibility suits on behalf of solicited clients argue that their fees aren't important and that a greater good is provided to all physically challenged residents who now have access to the previously inaccessible destination. Critics argue that the cost to the defendants could be better spent improving the quality of their accessibility improvements. Some have argued that defendants should be provided a limited period such as 90 days to correct any accessibility issues if, in fact, compliance is actually the purpose of the lawsuit. One can't help but wonder how Ralph Braun would handle such an issue, but innovation, adaptively and hard work would undoubtedly be part of his solution.

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