“My love of the outdoors began with my parents. When I was young, my father and I hunted in South Georgia. The Chattahoochee River was near our home and my mother and I would run alongside the river. As an adult, I still enjoyed an active life running half marathons, fishing, hunting, and kayaking,” Ben Huntzinger said. “In 2009, I was involved in an automobile accident that left me paralyzed from the chest down. I needed the peace and calm that I had always experienced from being outdoors more than ever before. Now, many of the activities I loved were no longer available to me because of the limitations of my wheelchair. I soon realized that even the best wheelchairs are not designed for extended outdoor use.”
Huntzinger was determined to continue with activities that had a positive impact on his quality of life. “I would go to the river to exercise and hook my dog, Rambo, to my wheelchair with a harness. From day one, he thought his job was to pull me, but when my front tires hit gravel or grass, that would bring us to an abrupt stop.” Huntzinger tried different wheelchair sports, including fencing, softball, and wheelchair racing. “None of the activities I tried met my need for the unique feeling of being out in nature,” Huntzinger said. “Every day, I am active – out in the woods, cutting my grass, rolling wherever, and whenever, I want, and that is important to me. I wanted, and needed, more than a few hours of recreation on someone else’s schedule.” The frustration with his limitations led Huntzinger to design and build a wheelchair that could function well in almost any type of terrain. However, the final product, Spartan Wheel Chariots, was ten years in the making.
“I realized no one was offering the type of wheelchair I wanted. That awareness lit a fire in me to create a wheelchair that you could take to the river, get some exercise, prevent diabetes and depression – a wheelchair that would help me, and others, live life more fully,” Huntzinger said. “We’ve been to the moon, and we mass-produce mountain bikes and baby strollers. I couldn’t understand why no one was building an affordable, all-terrain wheelchair.” With conviction, the paraplegic outdoorsman got to work. “I began by learning about things like mountain bike and downhill skateboard parts and buying nuts and bolts at the home improvement store,” Huntzinger said. “It was a process of bolting parts together, figuring out what would and wouldn’t work. Eventually, I learned how to weld from watching YouTube using a one-hundred-dollar welder.” Huntzinger also revived his talent for drawing. “I realized that I am blessed with a creative way of thinking. I am very good at putting things on paper that are in my mind. I doodled in notebooks for several years, modifying my wheelchair designs.”
Eventually, Huntzinger produced and began using a prototype of the all-terrain wheelchair he had envisioned for so long. Huntzinger’s passion for finding a resolution for the limitations of his wheelchair kept him focused during this time, but he experienced many dark, unproductive days. “It isn’t unusual for someone who has experienced a traumatic accident to struggle,” Huntzinger said. “Having a wheelchair that allowed me to be outside and just ‘go’ got me out of the darkness many times. Making this specially designed wheelchair available to others is something I have dreamed of since the early stages of my recovery. I knew there was a way to provide this type of wheelchair, but I didn’t understand why no one was doing it. That was unacceptable to me.”
Huntzinger’s perseverance paid off in 2019 after he enrolled at Southern Regional Technical College in Thomasville, Georgia. “After doing a lot of research early in this journey, I discovered that often universities and students would use resources and ideas related to their field of study to help people who are disabled,” Huntzinger said. “One day, I rolled into the marketing department at Southern Regional and told them about my idea for an all-terrain wheelchair. I asked if there was any way they could help me and assured them I would give the school all of the credit.” Two months later, the school received notice of a state-wide event sponsored by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. The “InVenture Prize” competition recognizes ambitious and growth-oriented student entrepreneurs with cash prizes. The technical school marketing department folks remembered Huntzinger and his innovative wheelchair and entered him in the competition.
Competing against students from Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, and other four-year universities in a “Shark Tank” style, live event, Huntzinger placed second in the overall competition and also won the People’s Choice Award. “I received $25,000 altogether, and I was ready to get to work!” Huntzinger was organized, had suppliers in place, and began building wheelchairs from his design. “I’ve made almost 200 wheelchairs during these two years,” Huntzinger said. “I can build a chair from raw materials to ‘painted and on a pallet,’ ready to ship in four hours. I do all the work except for the upholstery. My mom takes care of that.” Custom Spartan Wheel Chariots, built for adults or children, sell for five hundred dollars. (https://www.spartanwheelchariots.com/)
“My chairs are designed and built for a rugged environment with bigger wheels, durable frame, and a rear suspension system for comfort and support. I guarantee the chairs for life. If something breaks on your Spartan chair, I’ll fix it,” Huntzinger said. “My personal experience with the chair and the modifications I’ve worked through have trained me to know what will and won’t work. I’ve taken my chair out on mile-long pushes in the woods in public hunting areas and never experienced a problem with durability.” Huntzinger has invested years improving his wheelchair design, even studying the suspension systems that NASA used in its robots.
Huntzinger is uniquely qualified, possessing the imagination and skills to bring his dream through the necessary steps to reality. Just as there are no limits to where he can go using his Spartan wheelchair, there seem to be no limits to his perseverance and determination, but he isn’t shy about asking for help. “I emailed presidents of hospitals, talked to welders and fabricators, visited the Atlanta mayor, and even tried to see the Georgia governor, hoping to convince someone that producing this affordable wheelchair was worth the effort,” Huntzinger said. “I did get help and encouragement along the way, but not always from where I expected. For example, during a casual conversation with a group, I shared that I was looking for a material to build these chairs. A guy suggested conduit pipe. That was a major breakthrough! Instead of modifying old wheelchair frames, I began using conduit to bend my frames.”
Huntzinger earned his Drafting and Technology Associates Degree from Southern Regional Technical College, and later this year, he will receive his bachelor’s degree in Education from Thomas University in Thomasville, Georgia. “I plan to teach Social Studies to middle school kids and hope that I can be a positive role model, especially for young men,” Huntzinger said. “Even though building wheelchairs takes up quite a bit of my time, I enjoy being out on the river, taking in the sight of an old cypress tree from my kayak. With a wheelchair that can go almost anywhere, I can enjoy the many public spaces for recreation and hunting near where I live.”
Huntzinger hopes in the future, his wheelchair design will be built on an assembly line with Veterans making chairs for Veterans and people with disabilities, making chairs for others with disabilities. “After my accident, I felt that I was being told in subtle ways to accept life in a wheelchair and to conform to the equipment available. I was motivated to create a better wheelchair, so I would have the freedom of being outdoors wherever and whenever I wanted.” Not only did Huntzinger accomplish that, but he also invested a great deal of time and energy to make this freedom attainable by others with disabilities.
You may reach Ben Huntzinger at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ben Huntzinger is a consumer advocate who lives in Georgia.
This article was written by Rosa Walston Latimer