The Early History of BraunAbility
Long before The Braun Corporation, now BraunAbility, made Entervans, Rampvans, Companion Seats and Chairtoppers, we were a small wheelchair lift manufacturer in a small town in northern Indiana. In those days we were lucky to have a number of incredibly loyal supporters who helped the company grow by spreading the word about our lifts. One of them was Jim Pauley.
Jim Pauley was a community organizer–using today’s language–and an advocate for persons with disabilities. He contributed much of his time and effort to organizing the L. W. Freeman Chapter of the National Paraplegia Foundation, now known as the National Spinal Cord Injury Association. The chapter fought for things like accessible restrooms, sidewalk curb cuts and access to public transportation. This was in the days before the Americans with Disabilities Act and even before the Rehabilitation Act of 1974.
Jim was an unlikely advocate. He was not spinal cord injured, but used a wheelchair because of damage due to hemophilia and complications of his obesity. He wasn’t sophisticated, didn’t wear a suit and tie and didn’t spout legal and political jargon. However, he did have a folksy charm and an honesty that drew people to him. His wife Frieda was a post-polio paraplegic and she often joined his advocacy efforts.
I met him when he was organizing in my hometown of Fort Wayne. He wanted me to go to the national convention in Washington, D.C. for training. My parents were reluctant about letting me go, but he changed their minds. One of his selling points was that we would have a doctor on board. He neglected to mention that she was a distinguished professor at Indiana University with a PHD, not an MD.
It was Jim who recommended me to Ralph Braun a few years later when I was looking for a job. And, he and Frieda loaned me their back-up wheelchair van in 1982 so I could fly into Indianapolis and drive to Fort Wayne to visit my Dad after his heart bypass surgery.
Jim didn’t just recommend our lifts to people. He literally went the extra mile. He would load his van with fellow wheelchair-users and drive from Indianapolis to Winamac so they could talk to our salespeople about purchasing modified vans. The drive is two hours in each direction, down some so-so roads. Also, he had to be careful not to blur the line between his non-profit work and our for-profit status.
At the time I wondered why he was devoting so much time and effort to bringing people to us. Now I understand that Jim understood the power of accessible private transportation to change the lives of people with disabilities.
If he could get his fellow wheelchair-users up and out of their houses, they would be a visible presence everywhere they went, whether to the movies, buying groceries, or meeting with the city council to ask them to budget for curb cuts. Having your own transportation means you can access an almost endless number of possibilities for work, education, and recreation.
You can see in many of the testimonials on our BraunAbility web site how having accessible transportation has changed the lives of many people, not just those with disabilities.
Unfortunately, Jim died in 1985. In his honor, The Indianapolis Mayor’s Advisory Council on Disability, a group Jim helped found, awards the James K. Pauley Lifetime Service Award every year. The description on their website says it goes to the person “who demonstrates outstanding contributions promoting the inclusion and independence of persons with disabilities.”
Had he lived, I think Jim Pauley would have enjoyed seeing the growth of The Braun Corporation, and BraunAbility. He would have enjoyed seeing those whose lives he touched go on to touch the lives of many other people.