CEO with SMA Brings Mobility to All

Ralph Braun, who has spinal muscular atrophy, turned his scooter and modified van designs into a multimillion-dollar business

Ralph Braun, left, on the first Tri-Wheeler he built, in 1963. Braun, today, in a more recent model.
Article Highlights:
  • Ralph Braun, who has spinal muscular atrophy, is founder and CEO of The Braun Corporation, the world’s largest manufacturer of wheelchair-accessible vans and wheelchair lifts.
  • Unable to walk by age 15, Braun designed and built his first motorized scooter (the Tri-Wheeler) and wheelchair lift (the Lift-A-Way) in his parents’ garage. His inventions later formed the basis for his successful business.
  • Now 70, Braun has written an autobiography, Rise Above, and started a foundation to assist people with mobility needs.
by Miriam Davidson on June 14, 2011 - 2:30pm

QUEST Vol. 18, No. 3
Update (Feb. 12, 2013): Ralph Braun died peacefully at his home in Winamac, Ind., on Feb. 8, 2013, with his family at his side. He was 72 years old.

Ralph Braun clearly remembers the day he learned he had “muscular dystrophy.”  The experience taught him a lesson that shaped who he is and helped drive him to achieve great success.

In his autobiography, Rise Above, (2010, The Braun Corporation), Braun describes the hot day in 1947 when his parents took him to be evaluated at a hospital in Indianapolis. Braun was 6, and had been having trouble keeping up with other kids as they ran and played.

Rise Above book cover
Braun's autobiography, Rise Above, was published in 2010.

After the hospital visit, the family stopped by Braun’s aunt’s house on their way home to Winamac, Ind. Braun was waiting outside when his cousin came out of the house and announced that he had overheard the grown-ups talking, and they said Braun was going to die, probably before he grew up.

Braun was shocked.

“A thousand thoughts filled my head, and just as many feelings flooded my body,” he writes. “All at once, I wanted to curl up in a ball and cry, make a fist and punch my cousin in the mouth, and run away as far as my unsteady legs could take me.

“But another instinct took over: the instinct to rise above what he said to me and not let it — whatever it was — beat me. In that moment, I vowed that no matter what it took, my cousin would see me grow up.”

Braun did more than just grow up. The determination evident in the little boy to not let “whatever it was” defeat him propelled Braun to become a successful inventor, entrepreneur and founder of a multimillion-dollar company, The Braun Corporation, the world’s largest manufacturer of wheelchair-accessible vans and lifts.

He credits his success to his parents’ love, and to hard work, self-reliance and refusal to give up. “My greatest motivation was when people told me I couldn’t do it,” he says.

(Although Braun and his family at first were told he had a form of muscular dystrophy, he learned as an adult in the 1970s that his correct diagnosis is type 2 spinal muscular atrophy.)

A disabled James Dean

Braun’s muscle weakness grew more pronounced throughout his childhood and adolescence until, by age 15, he was unable to walk. He missed two years of high school because the local school building was inaccessible and officials refused to make accommodations (this was the 1950s), but he eventually graduated at age 21.

Ralph Braun and his father
Braun on the back gate of the old postal van that he made wheelchair accessible in 1964. His father, who Braun calls “a constant source of support for me,” is on the left.

In the meantime, he learned mechanics from his mother’s seven brothers and watched with interest as a local man who’d had polio — the only other disabled person he knew — got around town in a motorcycle and sidecar.

“I thought it was the coolest thing. A disabled James Dean right there in Winamac,” Braun writes. He recalls watching the man for years until one day he had an idea — why not build something that he himself could use to get around?

With that flash of insight, Braun went to work on his first motorized wheelchair. It was a crude prototype for his second design, a scooter with a golf-cart motor and go-cart tires. He used it to get back and forth to his $1.46 an hour job as a quality-control inspector at a nearby auto parts company.

Good timing

Braun got married and spent most of the 1960s working at the auto parts factory and raising a family. He faced a crisis when the company moved across town, and he had to somehow find a way to keep getting to work.

He solved that problem by buying an old postal delivery Jeep and modifying it with a hydraulic tailgate lift so he could get in it by himself and drive his wheelchair right up to the steering wheel. With added hand controls for the gas and brakes, it was one of the world’s first entirely wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

Word of Braun’s inventions spread, and soon he was running a part-time scooter and van-modification company from his parents’ garage. He called his business Save-A-Step Manufacturing, and he made both scooters (which he called Tri-Wheelers) and wheelchair lifts (called the Lift-A-Way).

Braun certainly had a great deal of drive and initiative, but he also owes his success to some good timing.

Just as he was creating his business, the disability-rights movement was getting under way. Soon there would be a huge demand for school buses and other vehicles that were accessible, and Braun was perfectly positioned to take advantage of the new market.

At the same time, returning Vietnam War veterans who were paralyzed or had amputations were given government assistance to purchase wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Braun was able to expand his business by serving them as well.

'Ironside'

In his book, Braun also credits the television show "Ironside" as pivotal to his success. The show, which ran from 1967 to 1975, featured actor Raymond Burr playing a paralyzed former police detective who used wits and cunning to solve crimes from his wheelchair.

“In each episode, Ironside cracked his case by traveling from crime scene to crime scene in a van specially outfitted to help him get in and out in his wheelchair,” writes Braun.

Even though Ironside’s van was just a prop, it made people aware that such a thing was possible — and so every Friday, the day after the show aired, a whole new batch of orders would come into Braun’s fledgling business.

The Ralph Braun Foundation

Throughout the next decades, Braun’s business grew by leaps and bounds. He quit his day job, established his business as The Braun Corporation, and, seeing the scooter market getting crowded, decided to focus entirely on van modifications.

O1970s PR photo of the Braun Lift-A-Way wheelchair lift
A publicity shot promoting the Lift-A-Way wheelchair lift and ample headroom of Braun conversion vans in the 1970s.

Today, Braun’s business is still headquartered in Winamac, but it has grown into an international corporation with more than 800 employees. Personal-use wheelchair vans are offered under the BraunAbility brand, and wheelchair lifts for both consumer and commercial use are sold across six continents.

Braun, 70, has five children and nine grandchildren. He still gets around in a Tri-Wheeler, although his SMA has progressed to the point where he no longer has much use of his hands or arms. He has used full-time assistance for the last 20 years or so.

As he always has been, Braun is philosophical about his condition and grateful for the amazing life he’s led. He now spends much of his time focusing on his family and on getting his new foundation off the ground.

As its first program, the Ralph Braun Foundation is building a database of available assistance programs in every state for people with mobility needs. The database will be on the foundation website and accessible to all.

At the end of his book, Braun talks about his vision for the future and directly addresses his readers.

“I have a very clear vision of this future, where people faced with unimaginable obstacles pull together to overcome them,” he writes. “That includes you, the reader of this book, who, no matter what you’re dealing with, holds the future in your very own hands.

“After all, if I can rise above, so can you.”

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