Ralph Braun is being recognized as a Champion of Change for leading education and employment efforts in science, technology, engineering and math for Americans with disabilities.
I was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy when I was just six 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 and 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 thought. By the time I was 13, I was relying on piggyback rides from my dad to get out of my wheelchair and into the backseat 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; and 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. With the help of my family, I invented a motorized scooter (I called it the Tri-Wheeler) so I could conserve energy. The Tri-Wheeler is what allowed me to maintain my job as a Quality Control Inspector at a nearby factory. When that factory moved several miles from my home, I had to figure out a way to get to and from my job no matter the distance or the weather.
That’s when I engineered my first accessible vehicle. It 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.
The world took notice. Turns out I wasn’t the only one desperate for this independence. Even as my small business expanded, the world 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.
Slowly – much too slowly – society’s perception of individuals with disabilities evolved, and my company, The Braun Corporation, evolved with it. When our country passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, we celebrated. The rest of the world was beginning to recognize what we understood all along — that everyone deserves access to the world.
The company that started in my parents’ garage celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. We employ over 850 people and our products are proudly manufactured in my hometown of Winamac, Indiana. 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 and the thousands of people with disabilities like me.
Achieving an honor from the White House is, without a doubt, one of the highlights of my life. But truly, I’m rewarded every time I see one of our customers driving or riding in one of our vehicles. And just last year, I started the Ralph Braun Foundation or individuals who need help to afford mobility equipment. I know firsthand what freedom and independence means to someone. It is nothing short of miraculous to see how far we’ve come in these last four decades, and I cannot wait to see what the next 40 years bring.
Ralph Braun is the founder and CEO of The Braun Corporation and engineered the world’s first motorized scooter, followed by the first accessible vehicle a few years later.