I met a boy in Tanzania, who for the first seven years of his life was locked up in his hut because he had club feet,” says Amos Winter, a grad student who is devoted to developing better wheelchairs for use in developing countries.

“Tens of millions of disabled people literally have to crawl on the ground to get anywhere. In Tanzania, you see people dragging themselves down the street all the time. It’s heart-wrenching,” says Winter, adding that there are now 20 million people in developing countries who need wheelchairs, but just one to five percent actually own one.

Recently, Winter went to East Africa to get feedback for Whirlwind Wheelchairs, a San Francisco organization that focuses on wheelchair design. There, he became frustrated by the mechanical failures and expensive parts in the available wheelchairs, so he began to work on new designs to improve the wheelchairs and cut costs. Back at MIT, he developed a manual of basic mechanical engineering concepts for wheelchair workshops in developing countries, then returned to Africa the next year to distribute the manual. And this spring, he began teaching an MIT course on the topic to other students.

“If you’re disabled in Africa, you may not be able to leave home, go to school, or get a job. If you need to go three miles on a rutted, bumpy, dirt road, it’s tough in a wheelchair. And there’s a big cultural stigma to being disabled.”

Winter says before he leaves MIT in 2009, he intends to produce a wheelchair in which you can comfortably travel six miles a day, and which can be sold in Africa for under $150. Another goal, he says, is to establish at MIT a wheelchair technology center where students can work on long-term projects.

“Instead of working alone, there are now 20 students in my class to help with the technology,” he says. “All these projects would have taken me years to work out on my own.

“I love it that my engineering skills can be used to benefit a huge population of people. Meeting disabled people and befriending them really made me grow. It compelled me to use my knowledge and opportunities not only to improve the design of wheelchairs, but also to drastically change people’s lives.”