Ralph Braun, who was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at age 6, went on to develop innovative mobility products, including a motorized scooter and a vehicle wheelchair lift.
WINAMAC, Ind. — Ralph Braun, who made important developments in mobility for people with special needs — including himself — has died.
The founder and CEO of The Braun Corp. passed away on Feb. 8 at age 72.
Among his contributions, Braun is remembered for his efforts to ensure that students with disabilities could get to and from school safely.
“Ralph’s dedication to the mobility needs of schoolchildren was unique in that he lived their challenges," Kathy Furneaux, executive director of the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute, told SBF.
Furneaux said that Braun was always open to listening to the school bus industry to improve safety and mobility.
"He set the school bus industry standard for safe transportation of children using mobility devices," she said. "His vision and commitment will be missed.”
Driven to move
Braun is credited with helping to create the mobility industry, driven initially by his own mobility needs.
In 1947, Braun was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at 6 years old. He credited his parents with instilling in him the will to overcome the challenges his disability — and society — presented him.
At about age 20, Braun engineered his first mobility product: a motorized scooter, which he dubbed the Tri-Wheeler. The scooter let him conserve energy and keep his job as a quality control inspector at a factory near his home — he could ride the scooter to and from work.
Braun captured the attention of people with disabilities as his mobility increased. His part-time business filling orders for Tri-Wheelers from his parents’ garage grew into Save-A-Step Manufacturing.
When the factory where Braun worked moved a few miles from his home, he outfitted an old postal Jeep with hand controls and a hydraulic lift. The additions allowed him to drive his Tri-Wheeler into and out of the Jeep, giving him reliable transportation to and from work in any weather.
A few years later, when Dodge introduced the first full-size, front-engine van, Braun made another groundbreaking innovation: He devised a way to install a wheelchair lift on the van, enabling people with disabilities to travel on the road with their wheelchairs.
A vital lift
In 1972, Save-A-Step was incorporated under a new name, The Braun Corp. For much of the '70s and '80s, the company's product line focused on the wheelchair lift.
"Not only did this product revolutionize consumer mobility, but it forever changed public transportation as well," company officials said in a statement. "Finally, buses and vans could be outfitted with wheelchair lifts to allow universal public transportation from city and state governments. Most importantly, children across the country were offered accessible transportation to and from school — a benefit that didn’t seem possible when Ralph was a young man encountering multiple roadblocks to his own public education."
Braun Corp. went on to introduce a lowered-floor minivan. Ralph Braun also created a network of dealers across the country to evaluate individuals' needs and circumstances to find the best mobility option for them.
Today, the company offers wheelchair-accessible conversions on various minivans, as well as multiple lift platforms and additional mobility products.
The Braun Corp., which now employs close to 850 people, continues to be based in Ralph Braun's hometown, Winamac.
Last year, the White House named Ralph Braun a "Champion of Change" for his dedication to improving the lives of people with physical disabilities.
Also last year, the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association inducted Braun to its Hall of Fame.
A few years ago, Braun wrote an autobiography, titled Rise Above: How One Man's Search for Mobility Helped the World Get Moving. He also formed The Ralph Braun Foundation, which helps people with limited income afford mobility equipment.
"While Ralph made a significant impact in the world of accessibility, he left an even greater imprint on mankind: the proof that, yes, you may be different from most people, but those differences are not limiting," said Nick Gutwein, president of The Braun Corp. "In fact, those differences, combined with the drive to succeed, can lead to greatness."
For more information on Braun's life and legacy, go here.