Growing up in the Netherlands, Barbara Alink recognized at a young age that people are very uncomfortable talking about death and disability. But the Richmond inventor also learned an important lesson from her grandmother: “If you ever face a problem, turn it around and you just might find a solution.”
Those two notions have come together in Alink’s radically chic mobility aid, the Alinker, which she designed to transform the lives of people with disabilities.
“It moves with your feet,” Alink told the Georgia Straight by phone. “While you sit in the saddle, you walk. you take away all the pressure on your lower limbs. And you’re upright, you’re at eye level, and you’ve got your hands free because you’re stable and you’re safe.”
At an April 23 talk at the TEDxEastVan conference, Alink described how she came up with the idea. Four years ago, she was walking with her mom down the street when they passed some elderly people riding low-rise scooters.
“My mom is quite a character and she has got a way of being quite forthright,” Alink recalled. “Out of the blue, she said ‘Over my dead body I’ll ever use one of those.’ ”
At TEDxEastVan, Alink mentioned that she asked her mother why she felt this way. Her mother paused before saying “Well actually, I’m really scared to be disabled and to be looked upon as I look upon them.”
This incident helped Alink gain insight into how mobility aids can emphasize a person’s disability. She concluded that this might make some people refuse to use them, keeping them more isolated and leaving them more vulnerable to falls and other accidents.
So Alink set out to create a device that even her mother would want to use.
“I started realizing that what I needed to design was something that supports an active life, regardless of physical challenges,” she said.
Alink reached out to hundreds of people with disabilities to learn how their conditions were preventing them getting around. She described them as “amazing people, powerful people, beautiful people, courageous people”. Yet they all told her how they had been dismissed or judged because of their physical appearance.
One woman in particular, Dynie Schuurman, left a lasting impression. According to Alink, she had lost both her legs in a cycling collision with a dump truck. The inventor revealed at the TEDxEastVan conference that she tried to imagine herself in Schuurman’s body.
“She would want to live a full life, to be social, to be active, go to the movies, go to museums—her favourite activity.”
That’s when Alink realized that she needed to design a mobility device that was cool.
“So cool that people would love to use it,” she declared. “And it would be so cool that the user would feel proud and happy. And ultimately, it needed to be so cool that it would overcome [people’s] discomfort with other people with a disability.”
The Alinker is easily dismantled and can be stored in the trunk of a car. It’s for sale on www.thealinker.com/ for US$1,977, which works out to about CDN$2,500.
Before creating the product, the former woodworker and restoration architect visited different sites to learn more about the manufacturing process. With the help of a Dutch producer, she decided to make the Alinker in Taiwan.
She and her partner, Cindy Brooks, launched the Alinker a year ago in the Netherlands, and they’re getting ready to market it in Canada. In a single day, they recently reached a fundraising goal of $30,000 on Indiegogo. On May 18, Alink will be in a Toronto CBC studio to film an episode of Dragons’ Den.
She’s been told that it might be aired in the fall season, but there’s no guarantee that it will be broadcast.
“We’re pitching to the dragons,” Alink said with a laugh. “The funny thing is we were invited.”