Barbara Alink isn’t shy when it comes to talking about things she’s passionate about. That was hugely evident when she transfixed an audience during a 2016 TedX Vancouver talk on “Dignity Through Movement.”
Her no-nonsense oratorical skills were at the fore yet again when she stood alone in front of a panel of hard-nosed financiers during a taping of the CBC’s hit show, Dragons’ Den, to pitch her innovative mobility device called The Alinker. “Maybe it’s the Dutch in me,” the passionate inventor says with a laugh. “But I’ve never shied away from sharing my enthusiasm for things I truly believe in.”
Alink is also a listener. In fact, it was listening attentively to her mother that prompted Alink to devise The Alinker – something that draws less attention to a person’s disability and focuses more on helping people feel positive, boost their self-esteem and ultimately challenge society’s notion of what a mobility-challenged person looks like.
Rethinking mobility devices in a major way
“I was walking with my mother in the Netherlands about four years ago when we came upon a group of older people using low-rise mobility scooters,” recalls Alink. “We had barely passed by when my mother uttered, ‘Over my dead body. You’ll never get me in one of those.’”
“The more I thought about it,” says Alink, “the more I realized these devices emphasized a person’s disability. If my mother would refuse to use one – so would plenty of others, which would leave them even more isolated and dependent on others. That’s not living life to your fullest.”
Alink, who has worked as a wood-worker and restoration architect around the world, researched the kinds of mobility devices that were available and was disappointed: “Every device I looked at was a technical solution for a body with a problem. They weren’t designed for people who want to live!”
Alink also listened to the wisdom of another female family member, her late grandmother: “If you ever face a problem, turn it around and you just might find a solution.”
That’s what Alink, who had moved to Canada in 2008, decided to do. She turned to her contacts in Vancouver to develop the first prototype, first out of wood and then with old bicycle parts. “I’d never done anything like this before. At times it was a classical clash between architect and designer as we tried to balance form and functionality,” she recalls.
Designing with safety and stability in mind
Alink had very specific goals for her three-wheeled walking bike: 1) It should allow people would sit upright and be at eye level with others standing around them; 2) Support weight by the seat – without putting stress on the lower body; and 3) A user’s feet should always remain on the ground, ensuring greater stability and safety. Plus there was one more point of utmost importance: “It would have to look cool!” she says. “My primary goal was to develop a mobility device that people really, really wanted to use.”
“Wheelchairs are fantastic for people who need them,” explains Alinker, “But if you are able to use your legs, why not do so? People who can propel themselves feel more empowered and more independent. It gives them more vitality!”
The common response Alink gets from those using The Alinker is that it has “given them back their life,” especially from those with multiple sclerosis, of which there is a high incidence in Canada.
Alink user Bonnie Avery from Ontario said: “I wasn’t able to go out on my usual walks for the past four years because of severe back aches that make it very difficult to walk without pain. Now I am out and about. We went to a park at Lake Ontario yesterday and I rode the trails for four miles. It was just wonderful. By the way, I am 70 years old. Much too young to just sit around!”
Meanwhile, Vancouver’s Diane van Egmond credits the bright yellow walking bike for helping to regain her independence: “I’m paralyzed on my left side, so The Alinker helps me walk for longer distances. I always have a smile on my face when I’m on it and it’s such a great feeling! Instead of sitting in the wheelchair and feeling a lot more disabled, this makes me feel like I’m on my way to becoming healthy again.”
To Alink, her invention is not just about the development of a new type of mobility advice “I developed a vehicle for social change,” she says. At the end of the day, The Alinker bridges that uncomfortable territory between able-bodied people and those with disabilities, which concerned my mom that day in the park. I believe everyone should be given the opportunity to live life to the fullest.”