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Role Models in Science and Mathematics Series: Ralph Braun, Inventor with Spinal Muscular Atrophy

Posted on May 13, 2019 by Ann

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“I want to be exceptional,” 14-year old Tammy said about her goals in life.

“I don’t want to be a strawberry. I want to be a durian,” said 13-year old Gil, after he learnt the meaning of the phrase “strawberry generation”.

Tammy did not let the challenges she faces in communication and social interaction stop her from believing in herself. She plans to be a researcher in the future.

Gil hasn’t decided on his career path yet but he prefers the sciences and does not intend to let the challenges he faces in learning stop him from showing grit.

Role Models in Science and Mathematics

For children like Tammy and Gil, learning that there are famous individuals who had conquered their own disabilities and had blazed a trail in the scientific fields for others to follow can be a motivating experience. They should know that they can do what they might have been told can’t be done, and how others have done it.

This is why we have put together a series focusing on inspiring role models in science and mathematics. Today, we are putting our spotlight on Ralph Braun, the inventor of the vehicle wheelchair lift.

Ralph Braun

Ralph Braun was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy when he was 6.

He started to use a wheelchair when he was 14.

“It was pretty traumatic, but I’ve got my parents to thank for helping me get through it all. My dad would not give up, and he wouldn’t let me give up, either.”

At age 15, Braun worked with his father to create a motorized wagon to help him get around.

When he had to drop out of college because of the difficulty of navigating around the campus in a standard wheelchair, he decided to take things into his own hands. Having developed a mechanical aptitude from his uncles, he set out to design a battery-powered scooter.

“Everyone told me it wasn’t going to work. But when it comes to commonsense engineering, I’m very blessed. I think it is a God-given ability, because I feel I was sent here to help my cohorts who are disabled get mobility.”

Soon he created the world’s first motorized scooter in his cousin’s garage, which he used to travel to the factory where he worked. A few years later, the factory moved to somewhere farther away from his own home. Out of necessity, he converted a van to become the first accessible vehicle with wheelchair lift.

“I designed the lift that is so common today on school buses and mass transit. Like the scooters, people heard about it and started saying they knew somebody who needed one of those.”

Later, Braun set up his own company, the Braun Corporation, which manufactured wheelchair accessible vans and wheelchair lifts. He was honored as a Champion of Change for leading education and employment efforts in science, technology, engineering and math for Americans with disabilities.

“When I was growing this business, I had two strikes against me. I was young, and I was what the population calls disabled. I never let that stand in my way. I just had to walk the extra mile, or roll the extra mile in my case.”

Ralph Braun received a lot of support from his family. His father worked with him on his first invention, he learnt the mechanics from his uncles, and his cousin let him used his garage. The support he received made him the success he was.

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