Doctors who diagnosed Ralph Braun's muscular dystrophy handed him a death sentence. He could sit and wait for their prediction to come true—or use those words as fuel to prove it wrong.
At an early age, Ralph Braun, founder and CEO of The Braun Corporation, was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy (later discovered to be spinal muscular atrophy), a disease characterized by a progressive loss of muscle control and movement. By age 14, he was unable to walk and was discouraged.
However, Braun’s outlook on life improved, and his determination led him to Indiana State University. But the difficulty of navigating the campus with a physical disability forced him to drop out after just one semester.
Confident there must be a better way to get around than the standard “iron monster” wheelchair that left him completely exhausted at day’s end, Braun sought a solution. Despite skepticism from friends and neighbors, he created the world’s first electric scooter in his cousin’s farm shop when he was 22, finally achieving the freedom of mobility that had seemed unattainable.
Shortly after that, he began a job as a quality-control technician at a local automotive supply factory, easily navigating around the facility with his new scooter. As word about the life-changing new product spread like rapid fire, Braun established a business—Save-A-Step Manufacturing—from his parents’ garage, to meet the rising demand.
Every day for seven years, Braun rode his Tri-Wheeler to work, even in the worst weather conditions. When his employer decided to relocate farther away, Braun was forced to find a better form of transportation, which ultimately led him to build the first wheelchair lift from a retired U.S. Postal Service Jeep.
A few years later, Braun converted a 1970 Dodge full-size van, inspiring the formation of the Lift-A-Way wheelchair lift. Today, the lift is still used in paratransit vans, neighborhood school buses, and mass-transit vehicles.
As had happened with the scooters, word of this new invention spread rapidly through the community to those with physical disabilities. Soon, hundreds of people were driving to Winamac, Ind., from as far away as Massachusetts and staying through the weekend while Braun converted their vehicles. He continued to work at the factory, leaving at 3:30 p.m. to work on conversions until early morning in order to meet the growing demand.
Ralph Braun's memoir tells his personal and professional story.
In 1973, he quit the factory and began focusing on his expanding business, changing the name to The Braun Corporation. This solution to his own personal-mobility needs would eventually lead to a worldwide corporation that would ultimately help millions of people with disabilities become an integral part of society.
For the next four years, Braun traveled across the country to Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs) hospitals, Easter Seals meetings, muscular dystrophy meetings, and anywhere he could find Americans who needed his products. Many of his first customers would eventually become dealers for The Braun Corporation.
“Ralph identified a market need for an underserved and underappreciated population—people with physical disabilities—and created products as a response. His refusal to accept the status quo led him to become America’s ‘Father of Mobility,’” says Nick Gutwein, president of The Braun Corporation. “His refusal to let physical limitations keep him from places he wanted to go led to the success of a business that reflects his positivity and commitment to helping people lead full and active lives.”
The Braun Corporation
As CEO, Braun built The Braun Corporation into the largest manufacturer of wheelchair-accessible vans and lifts. The company has expanded tremendously since 1973, now employing over 700 employees and reporting more than $200 million in sales last year.
“When I was developing this business, I had two strikes against me,” Braun says. “I was young, and I was what everyone calls ‘disabled.’ But I never let that hold me back. I just had to walk the extra mile, or in my case, roll the extra mile. Because of this, what began in my garage has grown into a worldwide corporation in just 20 years.”
Soon after the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), The Braun Corporation released the Entervan. This minivan presented unparalleled ease of access for wheelchair users because of its lowered floor and became the flagship of the Braun product line. The Entervan provided thousands with unprecedented access to public places.
In addition to the Entervan, the company now also offers the Rampvan and CompanionVan and works with leaders in the automotive industry, including Chrysler, Honda, and Toyota, to provide wheelchair-accessible conversions.
In early 2010, Braun released a memoir, Rise Above, which describes his personal and professional story, including how he prevailed over a physical disability and improved his own mobility as well as that of thousands of others with physical disabilities.
“It’s not a book that has a formula for success. The formula in it is that you should basically raise your children with good values, and hopefully they will use those values to benefit mankind,” Braun says. “Learning from your parents’ example is a tremendous thing in life, and it’s something that’s irreplaceable. All the classrooms and education isn’t going to replace what you get from your parents’ example.”
Rise Above showcases Braun’s entrepreneurial courage in an industry he helped create and define over the past 20 years. In sharing his memoir, Braun hopes to teach others about the importance of strong values while increasing awareness and keeping mobility top-of-mind for the public.
The Future of Mobility
In June 2010, Braun initiated a panel, cosponsored by The Braun Corporation and the American Occupational Therapy Association, com-
memorating ADA’s twentieth anniversary. “ADA 20/20: Looking Back, Looking Forward on Mobility” brought together key leaders from government, medicine, academia, and business.
The panel discussed how far we’ve come in the past 20 years because of ADA, including what challenges remain in the market for people with disabilities.
“We have made great strides in providing accessibility to people with physical disabilities,” said Braun. “But it’s been a slow journey…too slow. The country needs to find ways to accelerate the process so that 20 years from now the world is significantly more accessible than the one we live in today.”
Braun’s currently working to build The Ralph Braun Foundation, with the goal of providing mobility to those who cannot afford it. The foundation will begin operations in early 2011.
The public’s attention has shifted in the time since Braun invented the electric scooter in 1963. Thanks in part to the mobility products he originated and the work of his company, society’s focus has moved from an individual’s limitations to a celebration of his or her abilities. For this reason, in 2006, Braun changed the brand name to BraunAbility, with the pledge to redefine the ability industry in the years to come.
“This is part of what I love about my business. As I’ve been able to have a life of mobility, I’ve also been able to reach back and help others have the same,” says Braun. “There is nothing like seeing or hearing someone’s gratitude that you’ve been able to help them. It is priceless.”
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