August 22nd, 2012
07:12 AM ET
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.
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.
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.
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