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Magic Wheelchair Connects Technology, Art and Humanity

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Magic Wheelchair Connects Technology, Art and Humanity

Talk about a feel-good story. Magic Wheelchair is a non-profit organization that builds epic costumes for children in wheelchairs—at no cost to their families. The organization’s mission is to bring communities together and create unforgettable moments for children by “transforming their wheelchairs into magic.” In doing so, Magic Wheelchair raises awareness for rare diseases and gives these kids the rare opportunity to feel included.

“I think that Magic Wheelchair is really important to the kids because it gives them a chance to just be a normal kid,” says Christine Getman, Executive Director of Magic Wheelchair, in an exclusive interview with Engineering.com.

(Image Courtesy of Magic Wheelchair.)

“Magic Wheelchair costumes give kiddos a chance to self-express and bring their imaginations to life. Validating their voices and ideas can go a long way when they’re adults. At a young age, when children are in a wheelchair dealing with a serious illness, the adults are often speaking for them. Magic Wheelchair is an excuse to rebel against that normal narrative and let their voices be heard. Whatever crazy idea they want to dress up as, we make sure that we can make it happen.”

Christine herself uses a wheelchair, as she has Type 2 Spinal Muscular Atrophy. “I can speak from experience that when you would put on a wearable costume and you sit down in your wheelchair, you feel like it swallows you up a little bit. What we’re building are these vehicles, spaceships, princess carriages, to help children really further extend who they want to be.”

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Christine Getman with the crew. (Image courtesy of Magic Wheelchair.)

For some families, it’s a chance to make memories when time is short. Although costume requests are usually handled on a first-come-first-served basis, children with a terminal diagnosis are bumped to the top of the waiting list.

“The kiddos we serve often have very serious diseases, and we just want to make it fun and lighthearted and not have them think about that for a little while,” relates Christine.

Magic Wheelchair has served over 226 children with disabilities since it was founded in 2015. A number of its events have garnered celebrity attention, such as the Justice League five-costume reveal at Comic-Con with Adam Savage. One monster-truck-themed costume was unveiled at Monster Jam 2018, while a Beauty-and-the-Beast project and a Mandalorian-themed bike were double-revealed at 3DEXPERIENCE World in February 2020.

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Posing with Stan Lee. (Image courtesy of Magic Wheelchair.)

Humble Beginnings

Magic Wheelchair was born after founder Ryan Weimer and his wife Lana built a custom-made pirate ship around their son Keaton’s wheelchair for Halloween.

“Most of the time when Keaton is in his wheelchair, he gets stared at because he’s different,” explains Ryan in an interview. “But with the costume on there, [the wheelchair] totally disappears and they stare at him because he’s a superstar. It’s one day that his disability just disappears and it was an amazing experience for us and for my son, and I wanted to do it for other people.”

And so, Weimer created Magic Wheelchair and began recruiting builders. The organization started out with eight custom-made wheelchair costumes in their first year and grew to generate over 100 costumes by their fourth year.

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(Image courtesy of Magic Wheelchair.)

Bringing Together Unlikely Communities

Magic Wheelchair’s core team organizes fundraising and outreach programs, while matching builders with children and providing mentorship throughout each project. Volunteer builders are connected with vendors and professional fabricators, and communities of mentors and novices share best practices and content.

“We have makers of every level, from home builders, prop makers, special effects artists, students, doctors, nurses and professional engineers,” says Christine. “For example, dentists are surprisingly great at sculpting! It doesn’t matter what your background is. We can support you to build with us.”

Magic Wheelchair promotes a rich atmosphere of learning, and each build team has free access to online course material from the Stan Winston School of Character Arts. Volunteers gain first-hand experience with tools such as SOLIDWORKS and the 3DEXPERIENCE platform, while working in makerspaces including regional 3DEXPERIENCE Fab Labs.

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Futuristic motorcycle costume built using SOLIDWORKS. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

“We’re learning so much from all of the different industries that we’ve been joining,” says Christine. “One of my favorites is the haunted house industry. You learn about the materials that they use, which are a lot of the same materials that we use. The funniest thing I’ve learned is that there’s a competitive fake blood market. [Haunted house attraction builders] are some of the most talented and giving people, and we’ve had a lot of fun creating partnerships in that world.”

There are many different ways to contribute to the Magic Wheelchair cause—without necessarily being part of the build. Individuals can offer entrepreneurial services along the lines of social media and marketing, or they can even help by simply sharing space or supplying 3D printers.

And of course, there is the option of donating funds. “We have a combination of some incredible recurring donors and online fundraising in conjunction with grants that are helping us develop our education programs,” says Christine.

“We’re just wrapping up the first phase of the Magic Wheelchair Community Education Program. The program seeks to expand our core mission of building costumes for children in wheelchairs by developing a build curriculum that empowers educators and engages students, with the end vision of seeing kids helping kids. We are essentially equipping and teaching educators to lead Magic Wheelchair build teams with their students. The end result of the education program will be curriculum that any educator can pick up and use.”

From Application to Reveal

The Magic Wheelchair process starts when kids or their families apply on the website. These children are then matched with makers in their community.

“We try to make everything as local as we can, because we want to create this feeling of inclusion,” Christine says. “Unless it’s a terminal case and they don’t have a builder in their town, which is when we just build it and ship it, make it happen.”

Every case is individualistic. “When they do their first interview with the builder, we actually ask, is this something that you want to wear over and over again to Comic-Con, or is it one time? We’ve had builders make the costumes be able to break down and turn into decorations for their bedroom once they’re done using them as a wheelchair costume. We have some who need them repaired because they wear them so much. The kids are in charge, and you never know what they’re going to ask for and where it’ll end up,” Christine says.

The builders are then trained from start to finish. “We have a guidebook like a technical manual to go over all of the basics of how to measure a wheelchair, ways to plan ahead for building the frame and what the shapes may look like,” says Christine. “And then, once they get their general design, we can break off a more personalized direction and education for them.”

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Interviewing the kiddo and taking measurements. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

Magic Wheelchair helps builders find their exact materials list, and funds all the materials that go into making a custom-made wheelchair costume. Build mentors then check-in weekly to ensure that the process is going as planned.

“We wouldn’t want a builder to feel left in the dark on such an important project,” relates Christine. “We don’t talk about this often, but it’s an emotional experience for builders as well, using their creativity to change a child’s life. We want them to feel supported and show our appreciation—because the more builders that we can onboard and support, the more kiddos we can serve each year.”

At the end of the process, Magic Wheelchair helps to plan the reveal party—which could range from going to Comic-Con, to hosting a local event at the child’s school.

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Max-D monster truck costume reveal at Monster Jam. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

What’s Next for Magic Wheelchair?

It is important to address the COVID-19 situation, which has negatively impacted the organization’s ability to complete wheelchair costumes.

“We’ve got builders itching to build, but we would never want to put anyone at risk,” explains Christine. “This pandemic is affecting kiddos with disabilities quite a bit, from education to healthcare access and receiving medical supplies. I think in the future, we’re going to be seeing a lot of socially-distant driveway reveals. After a pause, we’re now finally starting to launch projects and virtually mentor builders. The 3DEXPERIENCE platform is going to be an incredible tool to allow us to build for kiddos without having to meet them or measure too often. The kiddos really do need something to look forward to—and if we can help provide that, we will hands-down be a part of it.”

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(Image courtesy of Magic Wheelchair.)

Christine also wants to tackle the wait list of 400-children and develop more event partnerships.

“In the big picture, I’d like to grow regionally so we can have stronger foundations in each area,” says Christine. “We have a program that allows high schools to build, and makerspaces for launching the project, training and delegating jobs to team members, and of course fundraising. I would like to make those stronger and more individualized, so you can choose on the day you meet Magic Wheelchair if you’re joining the education program or the makerspace program, or if you’re a home builder or if you work in Hollywood.”

“I’d like to have the tools that we use to serve the builders be more customized for the type of builder. I see only improvements from here on out and we’re just celebrating mobility devices, but the technology that’s coming around the bend now is going to change the way that we support people with disabilities,” she adds.

Christine has another personal goal of her own. “I want to expand to costumes for adults. Speaking from experience, a lot of services for people with disabilities tend to cut off when you turn 18, and everyone deserves a chance at a great costume. More than even a costume, it’s a form of art and self-expression—and that should never end for anyone.”

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(Image courtesy of Magic Wheelchair.)

You can support Magic Wheelchair by volunteering or donating at https://www.magicwheelchair.org/.

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