Ralph Braun is featured in the January 2013 issue of Success Magazine. Read the article below by Sally Deneen.
Disabled before adulthood, Ralph Braun made mobility possible for himself and thousands of others.
Ralph W. Braun was 6 when he was told he wouldn’t live past his teens. He and his cousins were playing with toy cars in his aunt’s driveway when he stopped to show them a bottle of newly prescribed pills and, to his dismay, the pills tumbled into the dirt. That’s when he first got the bad news: It doesn’t matter, his cousin Harry said. I heard our parents talking, and they said you’re going to die anyway, probably before you grow up.
A doctor earlier on that summer day in 1947 privately told Ralph’s parents their boy walked upstairs on unsteady legs because he had muscular dystrophy (the diagnosis was later corrected to spinal muscular atrophy, also a degenerative disease). Nothing could be done, they said.
Confusion and hurt gave way to determination for the small-town Indiana boy, who not only survived but seemed to be motivated by people saying “you can’t do that” and went on to make it big. Braun went on to found The Braun Corp., which calls itself the world’s leading maker of wheelchair-accessible vehicles and wheelchair lifts. The global company, now 40 years old, has 850 employees, many headquartered in Winamac, Ind., Braun’s hometown located amid cornfields, halfway between Indianapolis and Chicago.
“I didn’t set out to be this successful,” says Braun, now 72 and the married father of five adult children, speaking from his large office with windows that provide a view of semitrailers going into and out of the 88-acre complex. “I set out to put food on the table and shelter my children.”
His enterprise started out small… and out of simple necessity: Young Ralph Braun grew tired of pushing himself around in a wheelchair, so he motorized the wheelchair by adding lawnmower parts and go-kart tires. That led to a side business that grew by word-of-mouth and eventually creating the Tri-Wheeler, the world’s first motorized scooter. (“I’m pretty much the one who is responsible for all those things being run around in the shopping malls.”) The scooter provided him a way to get to his day job as a quality control inspector at a nearby factory. When the factory moved too far to arrive by scooter, he engineered his first accessible vehicle out of an old postal Jeep with hand controls and a hydraulic lift. “For the first time, I could drive and ride from my scooter without having to rely on someone else—freedom,” Braun says.
Braun still was working as a factory inspector by day when, during his off hours, he created and installed the Lift-A-Way wheelchair lift for vans. He worked nights and weekends to meet the demand of disabled people who called from far and wide. He founded The Braun Corp. in 1972 (and around that time quit his factory inspector job). The White House in 2012 named the boy-made-good a “Champion of Change” for “overcoming society’s barriers to bring mobility to the world.”
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