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August 22nd, 2012
07:12 AM ET

Overcoming barriers to bring mobility to the world

Editor's note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship – they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed. Ralph Braun was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy in 1947.

I was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy when I was just 6 years old.  Doctors told my parents I’d only live to be a young teenager. 

They encouraged my parents to leave me behind to be studied, to be institutionalized. Fortunately, my parents refused.

Years later, we discovered that the doctors had diagnosed me with the wrong type of MD. Eventually the disease took away my strength, just not as quickly as the doctors had originally predicted. 

By the time I was 13, I was relying on piggyback rides from my dad to get out of my wheelchair and into the back seat of my family’s car.

Back then, accessibility simply did not exist. My parents fought our local school board to have an elevator installed in our brand-new high school; they lost. My classmates had to carry me to many of my classrooms. Nothing came easily, but my parents never let me feel sorry for myself.

I wanted an education, a career and a family – I just had to work a little harder at it.

That’s why I engineered my first electric scooter, followed by the world’s first accessible vehicle. That vehicle was just an old postal Jeep with hand controls and a hydraulic lift, but for the first time I could drive and ride from my scooter without having to rely on someone else.

Freedom.

Turns out, I wasn’t the only one desperate for this independence because the world soon took notice. 

Even as my small business expanded, society doubted that a man in a wheelchair could ever lead a successful business. I couldn’t convince my local bank to give me a loan. They didn’t believe I had the strength or the stamina to run a business, and furthermore, they didn’t think anyone would purchase my products.

The injured soldiers returning from Vietnam, the parents whose children had no way to get to school, the immobile adults who had been told they’d be hospitalized for life – they disagreed. My customers now had mobility, freedom and hope.

The company that I started in my parents’ garage celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.  We employ more than 850 people and our products are proudly manufactured in my hometown of Winamac, Indiana (population 2,500). We lead the world in providing wheelchair-accessible vehicles for individuals, wheelchair lifts for public transportation like school buses, mobility solutions for taxis and more.

I think back to the skepticism and pity I saw in the faces of those who doubted me in the early years, and I hope they realize they were wrong to expect so little of me. 

These days, society’s perception is different. People with physical disabilities still have a ways to go before we’re not held to a separate standard than the rest of the world, but I’m incredibly proud to have a role in getting us there.


soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. Los

    Respect man. I love it when people doubt someone and at the end the get proven wrong! Anything is possible when you set your mind to it. We need more entreprenuers like this in this country. HAPPY 40th aniversarry Ralph to your company

    August 22, 2012 at 07:48 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tom

      Leave it to a couple stoners to try and hijack the thread.

      August 23, 2012 at 13:10 | Report abuse |
    • Mark

      Ralph Braun, passed away on Friday, February 8th 2013 at the age of 72. He will be missed greatly.

      February 14, 2013 at 08:23 | Report abuse |
  2. JakeF

    Good for you Mr. Braun! You sir, are an inspiration to everyone.

    August 22, 2012 at 09:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Adam

    Keep kickin' ass brother!

    August 22, 2012 at 10:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. David

    Semper Fi

    August 22, 2012 at 10:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Jeff

    Mr. Braun, thanks so much for creating your mobility cars. I have been driving a Braun modified Toyota Sienna for over a year and it has helped me to continue working even if I can not walk any longer. Thanks so much!

    August 22, 2012 at 11:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Garoth

    Mr. Braun states in the video, "We’re here to serve people with physically challenged as much as we possibly can....” However, Mr. Braun’s company told me that it will not move back the driver’s seat track in a car/van to provide tall people more legroom. Numerous National Mobility Equipment Dealer’s Association (NMEDA) members have similarly told me that they will not move back the driver’s seat track in a car/van to provide tall people more legroom. Tall people are physically challenged with a need for adequate legroom. Please also serve tall people.

    August 22, 2012 at 12:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tom

      Gaorth – You are a dumb as s. No one cares what you think.

      August 22, 2012 at 18:34 | Report abuse |
  7. Gary

    As a 90% disabled veteran myself, God Bless your efforts and the folks at your comapny!

    August 22, 2012 at 13:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Donny B.

    From the Braun website: The Braun Corporation has remained a pioneer in the mobility industry since 1963.
    2012 minus 1963 = 49 years, not 40th anniversary.
    Maybe he started designs in 1963 but didn't incorporate the company until 1972???

    August 22, 2012 at 13:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. The Dude

    Can you put a weight limit on those suckers? Too many large people on them.

    August 22, 2012 at 14:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. jhr

    1963 Braun invented the TriWheeler for his personal use.Following year founded the Save-a-Step Manufacturing Co. This then evolved into The Braun Co in 1972.

    August 22, 2012 at 18:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Pedro Soto

    God Bless you

    August 22, 2012 at 21:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. plenty

    Great story.....great achievement

    August 23, 2012 at 16:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Mark Smith

    Do not feel sorry for the man. He has made millions of disabled people buying his overpriced vans. trust me I have one and it cost me $80,000 cash. most people assume the state buys you one not true. I would love the man too if the van wasn't junk. Always breaks down and ramp stops deploying and cheap construction. Again he makes billions and we suffer with garbage product. As always the disabled get coned even by there own. Sad to say.

    August 23, 2012 at 23:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Mary

    Ralph is awesome! I have had the pleasure to meet him personally on several occasions due to the fact that my husband has worked for him for 23 years. Ralph has done so much for our community, for our family, and for those that need mobility help. While you cant please everyone, the majority of people he has served are very pleased and happy. Ralph, your a wonderfule person and keep up the good work. Happy 40th Anniversary!

    August 27, 2012 at 10:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Mark Smith

    Mary, 23 years. No wonder my van sucks. Your husband has become complacent and is making lousy vans now. He needs to retire.

    September 14, 2012 at 20:06 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.