Former 97-pound Weakling Fights Back with Innovations in Mobility
IIf necessity is the mother of invention, then Michele Klein is the mother of the folding powerchair. At 5'9", 97 pounds and alone, Michele fought back to regain her identity, her faith and her health…and to build the company Fold and Go Wheelchairs, staffed by wheelchair users for wheelchair users.
"During all these hard times," Klein states, "I'm still thinking like an athlete, I'm used to state-of-the-art everything. When they gave me the choice of scooter, manual chair or 300-pound power wheelchair, I thought, 'Why has nobody designed something portable?'"
Wheelchair Company Founder's Body Went on the Attack
When you come by booth 921 at the Houston Abilities Expo, Michele might be on her feet, but it wasn't always that way. She was an athlete on her way to the WNBA when her legs grew weak and her body seemed to betray her. Unconventionally, she was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, (RA) at age 26. RA usually strikes either pre-teen (Juvenile RA) or when people reach their 60s.
Still, the usual medications kept the disease from reaching catastrophic heights, until catastrophe hit from external sources. Klein remembers, "In 2008, the economy tanked, and I lost my lucrative job in web development, which also meant I lost my health insurance and the very expensive medicine that I relied on to keep going."
Although she married a man she will only refer to as "The Boy," Klein knew that she was gay at an early age. Being raised in a conservative religious family, she could not admit, even to herself, that she was gay until much later in life. Once the RA reached devastating levels—when she had only 97 pounds on her 5'9" frame—she found the truth that would carry her through:
"Negative emotions produce physical symptoms," Klein says again and again, like a mantra. "I couldn't find healing until I looked at the negative emotions causing my body to attack itself."
"By 2009, I could hardly walk. The Boy and I moved back to Phoenix to live with my family. All 11 of us lived in one house." Klein was then in a wheelchair and in need of constant care, for dressing, feeding, transfers, bathing, toileting…everything. "I wasn't blessed with a family of caregivers." she says, wryly. "They tried really hard, but it just wasn't anyone's natural gift or inclination."
After 17 years of marriage, she agreed to split with The Boy. State of Arizona's Access Program gave her health insurance, and suddenly she was back on her meds. She credits her improvement to God, and to uncovering the negative emotions fighting against her.
"When we push down negative emotions and don't deal with them, then our bodies are forced to deal with them. In my case it was RA, an immune disfunction in which the body literally attacks itself. I had to look at where that attack was coming from."
That led Klein back to her denial of her natural state of being. She had stayed close to God within the church, but that church included rules that didn't accept her basic self.
"God made me gay, but pastors wanted to pray the demon of gay out of me." Klein remembers. "My main feeling about myself was ambivalence. "
Klein tore through the Bible for over a year.
"I said to myself, I'm not an abomination, this is how God made me. I was an overachiever, a Type A personality. My body physically stopped working because mentally, physically and spiritually I was stuck."
In 2012 she had surgery and split from The Boy.
"While I focused on recovery, The Boy slept with everything that moved. That gave me further permission to be myself, and who I am is given from God. I give all the credit to God. Without my personal relationship with Him, I'd be a puddle on the floor."
Still, Klein's experience was finding doctor after doctor "…who were just jerks! I said to myself, I'm going to find the best. When I finally found one, I just said 'you do your job with excellence in the operating room, and I'll take it from there.'"
Once she found the doctor, she had 6 joint replacements in an unbelievably fast schedule. The doctor had to be convinced, but Klein was an athlete. Plus, she knew she had a purpose and had to get strong enough to achieve it.
From Garden Party Inspiration to Folding Powerchair
It was 2013 before she met her wife and found her dual purpose. "We were at a BBQ and someone had an old metal lawn chair. I got an idea. Why couldn't I have a power wheelchair that was as light as a folding chair and still do everything I needed? Plus fold up and fit in a car, so I didn't have to use a big chunky $80,000 handicapped van?!"
About her wife, Julie, she simply says, "She's the love of my life, I am so blessed." About her invention of the folding powerchair she says, "Rather than have it squeeze together like a manual chair, let's have it fold like a folding lawn chair! The first one we built for me, went to a fabricator. It looked like Frankenstein, but we kept getting stopped by people asking for the chair I was in. I knew I was on to something."
Klein made herself a promise: "If we are going to do this then I'm going to solve other electric wheelchair problems. I am disabled rain or shine. I want a waterproof power chair that I can get on airplanes with. I want it to climb hills. My driveway is steeper than a handicapped ramp. So are most curb cuts and sidewalks. This chair is for real life scenarios."
When you look at the chair the main thing you'll notice, besides the vibrant colors, is the oval shape and magnesium frame. According to Klein, "These act as shock absorbers for the chair. Most wheelchairs don't have shocks, and if they do, they are an expensive add on. Our chairs have the shock absorbers built into the design."
About her staff of wheelchair users, Klein states bluntly, "I don't want salespeople, I want overcomers. I want people who use wheelchairs so that when you talk to them, they know. They aren't selling, they are sharing what they've learned. Just like our customers, they've learned it the hard way."
After everything Michele Klein has been through, it is important that hers be a company doing its job with excellence. Hers is one of the forward-thinking providers of tools that empower people.
"A lot of the people we see are new to disease, new to their bodies not working. We can encourage people, we can fight that paradigm of wheelchairs: that once you are in the chair you cease to exist, and you will never get out."
And, Klein points out, after 6 joint replacements it is important to her that her chairs are arthritis-friendly. Nothing on the chair must be twisted to adjust.
"I keep plyers in every drawer just to open things." she admits. "I don't want my customers to have to do that with their chairs."
FOLD & GO Wheelchairs® are not sold through dealers, medical warehouses, supply outlets, on Amazon or eBay, we are Factory direct to our customers all over the world. See Michele and her team of wheelchair users at Abilities Expos and at www.foldandgowheelchairs.com.
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