By Reggie Mitzel
Photos by Jerry O’Connor
Lance Greathouse works as an optical equipment engineer by day to make a living, but his true passion in life is to help people with mobility impairments live life to the fullest.
The co-founder of Wheelchair Labs, a nonprofit organization in Phoenix, accomplishes this by providing refurbished and repaired power wheelchairs and scooters to those in need. This service is provided at no cost to the benefactor and is made possible by donations. Those served include disabled veterans and any others in need, allowing them to move freely within their communities, gaining better access to jobs, resources, education and basic needs.
In 2003, Lance’s brother Brent was diagnosed with a rare form of Parkinson’s disease. Seeing his brother lose his mobility brought home to Lance how important the wheelchair was to Brent’s life and how cost prohibitive a wheelchair was for many people. He built his brother a custom, edgy, designed wheelchair, which changed Brent’s life. Instead of seeing his brother as a “wheelchair dependent” person, others saw and treated him differently, talking about the chair instead of his illness. His brother passed away in 2004, but this experience inspired Lance to create Wheelchair Labs, where he continues to honor his brother by helping others become mobile and independent.
Wheelchair Labs gifts up to four chairs or scooters per week. This is made possible in part by dedicated volunteers. Among his volunteer crew are neighbors, retired engineers, a biomedical researcher and a software engineer. But this project is also a family affair. Among those getting their hands dirty are Lance’s two sons and his wife and cofounder, Janis. His mother cleans the chairs and his father provides custom paint jobs, transforming the refurbished chairs to like-new condition. This endeavor is truly a labor of love for all involved.
Lance recognizes that the need for power chairs and scooters is so great that he could do this full time and still have a challenge keeping up. His goal is to be able to devote all of his time to his true passion.
“There are many who do not have the resources or insurance to cover the cost of a new chair or for needed repairs. Even veterans sometimes have to wait months or years to get the chair they need.”
His ultimate goal includes operating a mobile service, allowing chair users to receive service in their homes and communities. When someone’s chair breaks down, or when someone doesn’t even have a chair, getting to the shop can be an obstacle. Lance intends to come to them.
When asked how his goal of running Wheelchair Labs full time – including a mobile unit he coined “Frankencart”- could become reality, Lance’s answer is simple: Donations. He has been grateful for the generosity of like-minded donors, including Lincoln Electric and Vern Lewis Welding. Lincoln Electric donated an aluminum welder; Vern Lewis Welding donated gas tanks and welding supplies. Boca Bearings kindly donates bearings for his many projects.
“I have everything I need for my mobile cart. Now I just need batteries.”
Lance estimates that the majority of the funding he seeks is to buy batteries to power the chairs and scooters. If this cost-prohibitive item was not a factor, Wheelchair Labs could serve more people, and Lance could spend more time applying his “mad scientist” skills to building and repairing chairs.
Lance also gets numerous requests for off-road chairs. Lance is completing an offroad chair for a Navajo man he met through the VA Hospital who ran marathons prior to becoming paralyzed. What he really wanted was to participate in pow wows in Flagstaff, but he couldn’t access them with a regular chair. His offroad chair will have big tires that will allow him to maneuver on dirt surfaces. Lance would like to be able to fulfill more requests like this one.
“We started this project in order to gift chairs to deserving people. That’s what we want to continue doing.”
On May 30th, 2015, Lance was invited as a guest to the Annual Conference of the Department of Arizona – Military Order of the Purple Heart, where he was presented with a Special Recognition Award. In July 2015, Lance was recognized with the Trailblazer Award at the ADA 25th Anniversary Gala held in Tempe, recognizing his innovations and advancements on behalf of people with disabilities.
Appearances, articles and interviews of his innovations, inventions and wheelchair works include appearances on ABC TV’s Shark Tank, PBS Horizon, National Geographic’s Mad Scientists, Discovery Channel, History Channel’s Invention USA, Science Channel’s Underground Science, and more. He is also included in a number of articles for publications including Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Wired, Wall Street Journal and Forbes.
Beloved family pet, Josie, keeping a close eye on the property.
Help Lance Make It Happen!
Vote for Lance’s Tailgating Chair for People with Disabilities in the Boca Bearings 2015 Innovation Competition! Supporters can vote each month. As Lance stated, “The top prize of $5,000 could buy a lot of batteries for chairs and scooters!”
Vote for Lance Greathouse | http://tinyurl.com/LanceGreathouse
Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer
Reggie Mitzel comes to Ability360 with a strong background in program and operations management. She also brings experience in staff training, special events fundraising, and community partnership development. Reggie’s experience includes ten years with Boys & Girls Clubs, including Director of a Boys & Girls Club in St. Paul, Minnesota. More recently, she served as the Director of Program Services at Communities In Schools of Arizona and Assistant Executive Director of ICM, a food and clothing bank near downtown Phoenix.