Mobility gives something that most people take for granted: the ability to live life with dignity and independence. In an ideal world, that's a gift no

Mobility gives something that most people take for granted: the
ability to live life with dignity and independence. In an ideal
world, that's a gift no one should go without.

That's the concept, and the goal, at Alternatives in Motion,
which calls itself “an alternative to traditional and often
limiting methods for people with disabilities to obtain

Located in Grand Rapids, Mich., the non-profit organization's
mission is to provide wheelchairs to people who can't afford them
and who don't qualify for any other financial assistance.
Alternatives in Motion presents these individuals with new, custom
wheelchairs bought with dollars earned through various fund-raising
efforts and private donations.

The organization is the brainchild of motivational speaker
Johnnie Tuitel, who has cerebral palsy, and Grand Rapids
businessman and philanthropist George Ranville. Ten years ago,
Tuitel underwent an operation to relieve the spasticity in his
muscles. At the time, he was the oldest person in the country to
undergo the procedure due to the extensive rehab it requires, but
“my goal was to be able to clean myself,” Tuitel

While he recuperated, Tuitel learned his insurance company had
denied his request for a new wheelchair, “which I needed
because my new body needed a new chair.” He already had a
chair, his insurance company told him, and it was too soon for a
replacement. Though Tuitel had the resources to pay for a new
wheelchair himself, as he lay in the hospital a thought kept
haunting him: What do other people in this situation, who don't
have the resources to get their needed equipment, do?

To help solve the problem, Tuitel and Ranville founded
Alternatives in Motion in 1995. Working with local foundations for
people with disabilities, the team estimated that there were
roughly 150,000 wheelchair-users in the state of Michigan, though
they had no way of finding out how many people were unable to get
the mobility equipment they needed.

“We set a goal for the first year of placing 15 chairs, no
more, no less,” recalls Tuitel. The organization easily met
that first-year goal in 1996.

In 1997, Tuitel and Ranville doubled the number, and in 2000
they placed 108 wheelchairs — donating a total of more than
285 wheelchairs in five years.

Alternatives in Motion was on a roll.


People who need wheelchairs can't just come to Alternatives in
Motion with an old chair and leave with a new one, however. There
is a specific — and sometimes long — process

Individuals must have a written prescription for a wheelchair.
They also must visit a vendor to be fitted for the equipment and
must prove that they do not qualify to receive the wheelchair
through any other means. Only then can Alternatives in Motion begin
the search for funds to fulfill the request.

So far, most of the wheelchair recipients have been Michigan
residents who find out about the organization through local media
outlets, schools and fundraising events. However, the organization
has a global reach.

Take the case of an African man with a disability who traveled
to Michigan in search of a college education. The man asked for
help because he needed a wheelchair to get around campus.
Alternatives in Motion not only gave him a wheelchair and a scooter
but also put him in touch with the president of a local college,
where he eventually received his degree.

“In Africa, people with disabilities are considered
disposable,” Tuitel explains. “As a result of getting a
wheelchair, [this man] became self-reliant, and now he is back in
his country working on disability education issues, is married, and
is running for parliament.

“This guy was ‘disposable,’ but he got a
wheelchair and now is able to do so many other things,”
Tuitel continues. “We're not going to claim credit for that,
though; he did it by himself.”

Or, take the case of a Guatemalan girl with spina bifida who
first visited Alternatives in Motion in 1995 at the age of two. The
custom-fitted wheelchair she got allowed her to advance from
crawling to really moving in a matter of weeks. Six years later,
the child was back — this time for a new wheelchair to
replace the one she had outgrown. The organizaiton has a policy
that once it provides a chair, it will purchase another if the
equipment is outgrown or breaks down.

The stories of local wheelchair recipients are no less
compelling. Alternatives in Motion donated its very first
wheelchair to a woman who had been a stabbing victim while she was
in college.

Another story starts a few weeks before Christmas one year when
Tuitel met a little boy who, he noticed, was seated in an old,
ill-fitting manual wheelchair. It turns out the child was already
on the waiting list to receive a new wheelchair from Alternatives
in Motion. In the holiday spirit, Tuitel blurted out, “You
will have a new chair by Christmas.” Almost immediately, he
wished he could take the words back, since, even if the money were
available to buy a chair, it would take weeks to have the boy
fitted and the custom wheelchair delivered.

Tuitel returned to his office in a glum mood, but it soon
changed when he received a call from a vendor who had checked out a
power wheelchair that someone wanted to donate. Tuitel opened the
boy's file and was elated to find that the specs on the wheelchair
matched the boy's measurements perfectly.

A few days later, Tuitel delivered the chair and kept his


The stories could go on except for one catch. Like non-profits
large and small, local and national, Alternatives in Motion has
suffered from the country's economic downturn. “When the
economy went sour in 2001, money stopped coming in,” Tuitel
says. “Some of our big corporate backers got hammered in
2002. It was a real tough time. But, the fact is that we're still
here … we still have people calling us who need wheelchairs,
and we know that if we don't help them, no one else

To offset the downturn in monetary donations, the organization
is taking in high-quality used equipment and partnering with
equipment manufacturers.

“We can utilize good used equipment to help people out in
more ways,” Tuitel says. “The problem with wheelchairs
is that they're all fitted, so you have to have a good inventory of
[used] chairs to choose from to meet the needs of all the people on
the waiting list. We also have to look at a place where we can hold
more equipment.”

In the past year, Alternatives in Motion also has begun
receiving requests for equipment from outside Michigan, from places
like Louisiana, Iowa and Florida, and plans to build on those
requests. “What we need to do is have these requests come in
from all over the country to prove the [far-reaching] need. Then,
we can ask for more contributions,” Ranville says.


Tuitel and Ranville maintain that their mission is unique.
“Alternatives in Motion helps every person who needs a
wheelchair,” Tuitel says. “We don't care why you need a
chair; we don't judge people. If you have a disability, we're going
to help you.”

“There are organizations that help local [residents get
equipment], but no one is trying to approach the problem in an
organized fashion,” Ranville adds. “There are
organizations that give wheelchairs to the rest of the world. We
need people to know that if they think an organization like ours
needs to be around, they need to send data, send money, help do
fundraising, so we can grow into a larger national organization.
They need to know that we are far more efficient than the
government [in providing mobility equipment].”

It seems that the message is beginning to draw response. Last
year, Alternatives in Motion received a Quality of Life grant from
the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. The grants are awarded
to programs that improve the daily lives of people living with

Such recognition is what keeps the wheels spinning at
Alternatives in Motion, and reminds Tuitel that the gift of
mobility he now gives to others came about because of his own

“My disability is the greatest gift of my life. It really
is, and I'm not just saying that to sound cool. I am fulfilling my
every dream,” he says.


Visit Alternatives in Motion on the Internet at, or call 877/468-9335.
For more information about Johnnie Tuitel's public speaking or the
Gun Lake Adventure book series, visit Tap Shoe Productions at, or call 888/302-7463.