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Nonprofit Started by UA Doc Provides Low-Cost Medical Devices

Dr. Burris "Duke" Duncan has brought together multiple partners to form ARSOBO, a nonprofit that builds low-cost wheelchairs, hearing aids and prosthetics.

ARSOBO offers wheelchairs with mountain bike tires in the rear to help users navigate the rocky terrain of northern Mexico.

(University Communications) A nonprofit agency started by a University of Arizona doctor is working with partners in Nogales, Sonora, to provide medical devices like wheelchairs, hearing aids and prosthetics to those in need.

The central philosophy of the agency – called ARSOBO, short for Arizona, Sonora and border – is to hire people who need or use a medical device. Those people then build them and are charged only the cost, or what they can afford. Families who need the devices but have limited means are aided by subsidies from private donations or grants, says Dr. Burris "Duke" Duncan, a UA Professor Emeritus in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health and the College of Medicine Department of Pediatrics.

The jobs component plays as much a role as restoring a person's mobility, he says.

Burris "Duke" Duncan, MD

The concept for ARSOBO arose in 2008 when the Sonoran University of Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, known as Sonoran UCEDD, asked Duncan to organize a Border Conference on Disabilities that would be held in Nogales, Sonora. He did, with one provision: that the conference lead into something that would have a continued impact.

Being a border conference, agencies and individuals on both sides of the border were consulted and worked together to convene the conference and decide what should happen after the conference.

One problem identified was that many children with a disability did not have a wheelchair or did not have the right wheelchair – one that could manage the rough terrain in and around northern Mexico.

Duncan and other conferees contacted Whirlwind Wheelchair International, a company started by San Francisco State University professor Ralf Hotchkiss, an inventor and paraplegic whose revolutionary design for a rugged yet inexpensive and easily built wheelchair earned him a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant.

The wheelchairs are built with wide, flexible front wheels. The rear wheels are mountain bike tires. A longer distance between the front and rear wheels provides more stability.

"They can be customized for children who have special needs and can be repaired with materials you can find in any hardware store or bicycle shop," Duncan says.

With a $10,000 development grant from the University of Arizona Foundation, Duncan and his team purchased tools and equipment and hired Kiko Trujillo to manage the operation and wheelchair builder Gabriel Zepeda to set up a demonstration shop at the conference. International Rotary gave start-up funds and Trujillo obtained rent-free space in the CECATI 118 Vocational School in Nogales.

Since then, ARSOBO has added two other projects: to provide prosthetics and solar-powered hearing aid battery chargers.

Beto Rivera, an amputee, and volunteer technicians from Hanger, Inc. – Prosthetics & Orthotics, fabricate prostheses and students enrolled at the school for the deaf in Nogales, Sonora, assemble solar-powered hearing aid battery chargers.

ARSOBO outgrew its original space and now the Nogales Parque Industrial provides 4,200 square feet of rent-free space. Thus far, ARSOBO has built more than 70 wheelchairs, many of which are customized, and has fitted 38 people for prosthetics. ARSOBO needs continued donations to help subsidize the cost of the wheelchairs and other devices.

Glenda Roark, an access consultant in the UA's Disability Resource Center who serves as the president of ARSOBO's board of directors, says the partnerships on both sides of the border are key to ARSOBO.

"There's a huge commitment by so many people. The people who contribute to this don't like to be in the spotlight. They give their support because they care," she says. "The main intent is to support those who have no other means to be more involved and have a meaningful presence in their community."

Roark has toured border communities with Duncan and says there are many more needs than ARSOBO has been able to address thus far.

"The potential is really great in the sense that there's nothing like this organization close by," she says.

By Eric Swedlund for University Communications

The University of Arizona