She says she’s not an activist, but I respectfully disagree. She has built schools in Afghanistan and taught carpentry to deaf children in Kenya. She challenges the refuge of comfort we tuck ourselves into by refusing a seat on the othering bandwagon. She personifies a fierce defiance of the mindsets driving the ism’s in society, choosing to see a single human race made up of diverse parts instead of different sub-elements struggling to co-exist. Yeah, I’d definitely call her an activist, and her current tool of activism is her revolutionary Alinker “walking bike” designed to re-imagine life for people using mobility devices (MD).
“Over my dead body will I ever use one of those things!”
The Alinker story started with these words uttered by Barbara Alink’s mother while on a trip to the market back in 2011. Noticing a group of elderly people happily chatting away in their scooters and wheelchairs, she inadvertently made a judgement about a group of people she could easily become a part of someday.
It was a moment of reckoning for Barbara, who had always been fueled by a passion for justice and inclusion. She believed strongly in the right to live and express life on one’s own terms, free from the constraints of society’s expectations. She was keenly aware, however, that some people, especially those needing mobility assistance, continued to be systemically “othered” by society and cut off from enjoying even life’s simple pleasures.
“…for those who want to live despite mobility challenges.” Barbara set about designing a solution, knowing it would have to be something her mother would want to use. Enter the Alinker, a revolutionary non-motorized bike without pedals that enables the user to work leg muscles and be mobile while being seated. The device is built for 3 inseam ranges and is useful across a spectrum of activities: a young child with cerebral palsy stabilizes himself during a virtual exercise program, a lady with multiple sclerosis (MS) makes the short trip to the corner shop, and a Paralympian flies around a track in preparation for a marathon. The limits of the Alinker really are the limits of the user.
“A vehicle for change.” Beyond the obvious physical advantages of the Alinker, it addresses other deeper issues. On the surface, its value stems from the movement it allows users, because movement equals independence, which equals value, right? Of course. Less visible, however, is the social divide between those who need mobility devices and those who don’t: if you see me in a wheelchair and have to approach me, you probably feel a twinge (or more) of discomfort. In your mind, my immobility promptly groups me in a category of person unlike and therefore inaccessible to you. This mental sorting process is automatic, natural, and convenient. Human nature pushes you to protect your comfort zone, so in order to deal with the awkwardness, you will either subtly ignore me or display patronizing behaviour towards me. The Alinker addresses this by placing the user at eye-level with others (you’re perched on a seat as opposed to seated in a chair), which subtly but very powerfully makes the user more “accessible” to non-mobility device users. Additionally, the innovative design of the Alinker so captivates people seeing it for the first time that their curiosity overrides any discomfort about the person’s disability. The device then becomes a conversation starter and therefore a “bridge in the gap” between the MD user and non-MD user.
“A body is what we have, not who we are.” Alinker users the world over continues to bring this phrase to life in the way they “bridge gaps” and move through daily life. They fully embrace the idea that their immobility doesn’t define who they are; rather, it simply has to be worked into active engagement in all areas of life.
Prominent users include Colonel Carlo Calcagni, an Italian military officer-turned-Paralympian who recently completed the London marathon on his Alinker in just over 2 hours; Roxy Murray, a London-based fashion influencer, podcaster, and activist with MS who colour-codes her Alinker and other walking aids with outfits for her Instagram posts; and Selma Blair, an American actress recently diagnosed with MS for whom the Alinker has become “her way out again”.
“Together we move differently!” Making “her way out again” means Selma and other Alinker users regain access to the outside world and to a special community in which they thrive and inspire. The Alinker community promotes activity, awareness, and support among users as well as non-users through Facebook and Instagram groups, online networking/ information sessions, and exercise programs through the Alinker Academy. To address financial hurdles in purchasing a device, the company offers rent-to-own opportunities and crowdfunding programs through the Alinker site. The Race to Raise features Alinker record-setters running marathons, races and other events to support campaigns for others to get their devices; so far, 191 of the targeted 200 campaigns have been completed! This translates to “191 times more agency, belonging, [and] mobility”.
From the first Alinker deliveries to ecstatic customers, people previously marginalized by society have been re-imagining and re-purposing their lives.
Yet, for all its reach and impact, the Alinker represents only a single part of a greater company vision to provide access to community, mobility, and healthy food (the company recently opened an accessible farm in Kentucky, USA, where it employs Alinker users). When Barbara founded Alinker Inventions, Ltd. in 2012, she realized very quickly that it is first and foremost the access to these key resources that promotes a healthy, fulfilling life. Through innovation fuelled by a passion for justice and equality, the Alinker continues to offer access to such a life that is the birthright of all, regardless of mobility or other challenges.