Designing cars for physically challenged

He started redesigning vehicles for physically-challenged people  with the sole purpose to see the smile on their faces.

Clockwise: Ferdinand Rod­ricks in front of his car. Ferdinand with a physically challenged person during an off-road rally. Stephen Hawking in the chair designed by Ferdinand at Mumbai. Some modifications carried out by the Mumbai automobile engineer. A physically challenged girl behind the wheels.

They say tough guys do not dance. But tough guys do have a sensitive heart. And automobile engineer Ferdinand Rod­ricks, a veteran off-road rally driver, is just that.

He knows the ecstasy of the green breeze blowing in the snaky ravines; the feeling of triumph driving through desert dust storms in Rajasthan; and the soaring of spirit crossing vast stretches of Ladakh alone in a vehicle with only wind whispering at the distant louring Himalayan mountains. Possibly this spirit of invincibility simmering in the deep of the heart of every human being made him give more than a glance at the emerging field of ergonomics and its applications in automobiles.

The reason: His closest friend had poliomyelitis with a longing to drive a vehicle on his own. Ferdie, as he is called by his friends, had just emerged from the college with a degree in automobile engineering. The “tinkering,” as he calls it after heavy studying and restructuring of the inner spaces in the old model Fiat resulted in his polio-afflicted friend take over the steering and independently weave through the traffic congested roads of Mumbai (then Bombay). This was in early eighties.

Ferdinand has come a long way since then. And what was just an experiment in automobile ergonomics in early eighties is now an existential drive; designing gadgets that can help physically challenged person in their day-to-day chores.

Of course, redesigning vehicles continues to be his forte and in a voice with dew drop softness, he says: “But after my first success in redesigning the Fiat car, the word spread around. And then I came in close contact with differently-abled people and my perceptions also underwent a change.” The outcome of these interactions with differently-abled people made him realise the helplessness as well as the never-say-die attitude of the so-called “handicapped.”

Prod him further on the business model of his enterprise, he reluctantly says:“The question is not why I do it. I am not running a shop and neither this ‘Ferro Equip’ which I started with a sole purpose for redesigning vehicles with mobility aids for physically-challenged people is a dukaan (shop)… I am hurt when people ask me about how much money I am making. It is just not about making profit.

The sole purpose is to see the smile in the eyes of these people whose pride stumbles at every step they try to take independent of others. The question of profit does not exist in my vocabulary. “I get my salary working here as a CEO at Joseph Cardiju Automotive which is an authorised service centre for Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd. But then let me tell you M&M has nothing to do with my passion for automobile ergonomics
vis-à-vis physically challenged people.”

But start talking about the dynamics involved in redesigning vehicles that possibly number over a thousand, in the last nearly 30 years, Ferdinand happily starts twittering and says: “My first car redesigning revealed to me the importance of the individual. The physically challenged individuals are a sensitive lot and moreover the physical strengths of their limbs differ from one individual to another.” 

So before rushing to the drawing board, Ferdinand first has a long chat with the individual. “It is just like a doctor I have to talk to them and find out their requirements; for example some want wheel chair should be folded inside when they slip behind the wheels and take over the control systems, others want wheel chair should itself
become the driver’s seat, while some want that it should go up the roof.”

The new driver is asked to go for a physical evaluation at All India Institute of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation (Mumbai) which provides a driving fitness certificate specifying the strengths and weakness of the limbs that the would-be driver is going to use.  This is important, he says: “Primarily because most cases which come to us are those people who have lost the ability to use their lower limbs.

They are paraplegic and it is important to know whether the person has the necessary strength in his or her hands because all the foot controls, depending on the affected limbs are transferred to the hand…so it is not easy to go around pressing the clutch 200 times while driving. A layperson may not understand this but it is very important to know before you restructure the transmissions of the vehicle. Like at present I am working on a vehicle for a patient who will drive the vehicle with legs.”

After the vehicle is redesigned and restructured irrespective of the model, the vehicle is taken to Regional Transport Office for inspection and approval. “And as for learning to drive, nobody believes it when I say that it takes only an hour. You should see the glint in the eyes of the new driver and the surprise on the faces of their relatives and friends. I always make them learn on roads. Not many know but the sensory perception and learning ability of differently-abled persons is much higher than the adaptability of so-called able-bodied people.”

On the issue of the costs, Ferdinand points out: “It all depends on the requirements. The cost usually fluctuates between Rs 7,500 to Rs 37,000. The work is voluntary and same goes for my other gadgets designed for physically challenged people. In fact not many would believe… I feel more at home with these people than the so called physically normal people. They are so empathic and that is why I started a website: www.handicapped people.com which is also visually challenged friendly.”
And this empathy made him foray into designing other kinds of gadgets like hoists for totally bed-ridden patients; a sling that transfers the
patient from bed to chair or to a toilet.

“I worked on it because I found that many fami­lies cannot afford to keep a 24-hour attendant, thus I designed a hoist with a sling that makes the patient independent. With a slight modification I designed a hoist for Paraplegic Rehabilitation Centre in Pune where severely injured Indian soldiers are also treated. The hoist transfers the patient safely into a swimming pool during hydro­therapy sessions.”

Ask him about his achievements, he just smiles: “Their smiles are more than enough. You should see them when some of them visit my farm house which I have designed in such a manner that it is fully accessible to physically-challenged. See these photos… their smiles are my payment.”

Photos with beaming faces cover wall to wall of his office and amidst this there stands also the photo of legendary British cosmologist Stephen Hawking.

“In 2001 British High Commission asked me to redesign vehicle for a person suffering from a severe motor neural disease and is totally wheel chair bound. It is while waiting at Mumbai airport I realised for whom I had redesigned the vehicle.”

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