Lance Greathouse wanted to make things better for his brother, Brent, who had been diagnosed with a rare form of Parkinson’s disease in 2000. After the disease left his brother immobile and in a wheelchair, Lance noticed how people would treat Brent differently, so he set out to create the coolest custom chair for his brother. In his new chair, people responded more positively Brent, and the idea for what would become Wheelchair Labs, a nonprofit organization donating custom wheelchairs to those in need, was born.
Although his brother lost his battle with Parkinson’s, Lance continues to fix up chairs and donate them to those in need. He also builds robots and elaborate tailgating grills, contraptions which have helped land him on television shows such as Robot Wars and BattleBots and have made him a standout annual Burning Man arts and music festival attendee.
The 54-year-old Glendale resident, who works as a dental field service engineer by day, hopes to one day make building custom wheelchairs his full-time job. Greathouse has never been paid a salary for his custom creations, and he’s donated 20 chairs in the past year and is always in need of more donations to help others. Learn about how he got into building custom wheelchairs below, and keep scrolling to hear him name his five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley in a video.
What brought you to Arizona?
I’m a native, and my parents are also natives. I attended Alhambra High School, as did my father. I grew up watching (TV show) Wallace and Ladmo and having fun with friends and family at (amusement park) Legend City. I attended Arizona Technical Institute and earned a degree in electronics.
I’ll never leave Arizona. I can’t think of any other place I want to live. It has a little bit of everything — pines, lakes and desert — and I love it.
How did your interest in mechanics originate?
Growing up, I was a severe asthmatic, so I couldn’t participate in most sports. As a hobby, my dad was a backyard mechanic who built custom sand buggies and cars, so while other kids were playing football, I was learning how to build cars and fabricate. He taught me, “Whatever comes into your mind, you can build.” I’d look around, see what I had to work with, and get started.
How does Wheelchair Labs work?
Based in Phoenix, Arizona, Wheelchair Labs is a program operating under Southwest Community Network, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. With caring volunteers and community partners, we refurbish and repair donated electric wheelchairs and scooters, in addition to designing and building all-terrain personal vehicles.
All mobility vehicles are gifted to those who are physically impaired, including disabled veterans and others in need, so they can move freely within their communities and gain better access to jobs, resources, education and basic needs.
Talk about what inspired you to start building custom wheelchairs.
My younger brother, Brent. He earned his electronics degree and worked for a small company servicing life support equipment. We worked side by side for 20 years, not only during the week, but on the weekends building projects together. He was the best fabricator of anyone in our family.
In 2000, he was diagnosed with a rare form of Parkinson’s disease. I watched him go from a big, strong, intelligent guy, to my mom feeding him with a spoon. He lost his mobility and couldn’t talk and ended up in a wheelchair. I noticed how when we’d go out, people would treat him different in the wheelchair. If we were together, they’d ask me questions instead of him. People treated him like he was mentally challenged.
I had always enjoyed customizing cars, so I figured I’d customize his wheelchair. Things changed immediately. I’d take him out, and people would start talking to him and say, “Oh, that’s an awesome chair.” Now he was more like the cool guy instead of the guy in the medical wheelchair.
He lost the battle and passed in 2004. In honor of my brother, I will continue to build and help others who are in need of mobility devices.
How do you customize the wheelchairs?
I can do lots of things to make the wheelchair special to the owner. We find out their interests, whether it be Nascar, football, military, Barbie, etc. and take it from there. It’s limitless.
What are your goals?
My goals are to grow and expand Wheelchair Labs and to reach as many people as possible to get them mobile devices so they can move freely within their communities and gain better access to jobs, resources, education and basic needs.
I would also like to manufacture a simple and affordable off-road chair, which is probably my biggest request.
What fuels your passion for building these chairs for free?
I like the creative part. I like designing and building things, and I love giving the wheelchairs and scooters to people, seeing the looks on their faces, and knowing I made a difference in their life.
About a year ago, we gifted a scooter to a disabled teacher in Show Low, Arizona. During the winter months, with the scooter she had, she could not get through the snow and cinders to get to her car. So, we took a couple of her old scooters that were broken, pieced them together, repainted it, and installed some big tires, and she can now get through her yard and to her car. At her request, we also installed a custom horn and intercom system.
What’s your favorite chair you’ve ever made?
My favorite is always the next one.