David Constantine

Master of Science


Mr Chancellor,

Only a couple of years or so before our Honorary Graduate was born, at the very beginning of the 1960’s, the playwright John Osbourne, in Look Back in Anger, wrote, ‘There aren’t any good, brave causes left’, and, he might have added, few brave heroes or heroines to fight them.

From time to time one meets a person who makes and deep and lasting impression on one; usually such people are as full of years, as they are of wisdom, compassion, good works and achievements.

David Constantine is different. He was born in Dagenham Essex, in July 1960, the first of two sons of Jean and William Constantine, both of whom worked for P & O Lines.

The young Constantine emigrated with his family in 1971 at the age of 11 to Melbourne, Australia, by sea, obtaining during the voyage what he describes as ‘a real taste of what my parents lives had been before my brother and I came along’.

It would be fair to say that David fell in love with Australia and it was I think a blow to him that only two years later the family moved back to the UK and to Essex.  The experience in Australia was to have had a profound effect on his life, however.

After attending Shenfield School and taking his GCE O’levels, the independent- minded young Constantine aspired to be a farmer.   Before and during attendance at Writtle Agricultural College, he worked on a number of farms in Yorkshire, Essex and Devon and also in Queensland, Australia.

It was whilst travelling in Australia in February 1982 that David Constantine’s life was irrevocably changed. Aged just 21, he was involved in a diving accident on Fraser Island, Queensland, which left him quadriplegic. The only immediate prospects suddenly he had were five months in the Brisbane Spinal Unit followed by a similar period of rehabilitation in England.

The consultant in Brisbane told him that the non-stop long-haul journey back to the U.K was ‘a medical evacuation, not a holiday’.  Our graduand had a different view, however and got his way in stopping over in Singapore to go shopping. As he then said, ‘This could be the last time I ever travel, and until I get home to England, I’m still on holiday’.

Following his lengthy period at the Stanmore Rehabilitation Unit, where he taught himself to type using Perspex splints which locked both his hands and wrists rigid, and making a reappraisal of his future, David applied to, and was accepted by, Oxford Polytechnic to read for a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Studies, Accounting and Finance.  He gained a class 2:1 degree in 1986 and then began a career with IBM at Basingstoke.  He was told at induction that a position with IBM was a job for life, and employers, IBM were both positive and supportive to their new employee, willing to provide whatever equipment or help was required. Additionally, the new recruit, as with other employees, had opportunities to see other parts of the company. In particular he wanted to have a good look at the photographic department based in Winchester, while he was there he also saw the work of the design department and at this point  David ‘discovered’ industrial design. On such ‘chances’, if they may be described as such, life-changing things happen.

It was, put simply, a revelation to him. He now knew for certain what direction he wished his life to take.  Wanting the best possible institution and course, as a preparation, he applied for and was accepted on to the Industrial Design Master of Arts programme at the Royal College of Art.  He studied there from 1988-90 and was awarded an M.A. with distinction.

The major problem at the start of the course, nothing new to almost everyone here today, was how to fund the two-year programme. With typical Constantine aplomb, some might say cheek, he asked IBM for help and, following a meeting with the Design Director, Head of Personnel, and his boss, IBM came through with the funding, despite having been told that they would be fortunate to see a return on their ‘investment’ as their employee was unlikely to return.

It was at RCA that David Constantine met Simon Gue and together they entered a competition to design a wheelchair and were given three weeks to do it in. They came first, winning the Frye Memorial Prize, and along with Richard Frost, used the money to go to Bangladesh to see if their wheelchair design was appropriate. The Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed, having seen the design, invited them back after completion of their studies, and thus in 1991, the first Motivation Project was born. That same year David won the Snowdon Special Award for services to disability and the ‘Against All Odds’ Award from the American Paralysis Society.

Motivation, Mr Chancellor, is a Charitable Trust and Company Limited by Guarantee, founded by David Constantine, and his colleagues, some 10 years ago, to design specialist equipment, particularly wheelchairs, for people with severe mobility problems.  At least, that is how it started.  It does much more than that now, and has greatly expanded its range of services.  Currently based at the Brockley Academy near Bristol, Motivation has a presence in over 20 countries across the five continents of the world. 

Person of the Year Award from the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation followed in 1992, the year the ‘Mistral’ wheelchair was designed, and a wheelchair production unit established in Poznan, Poland.

1993 saw the design of the ‘Mekong’ three-wheeled wooden wheelchair (which was 1996 finalist in the BBC Design Awards and 2001 Worldaware Business Award for  Innovation) and the design of the hand propelled tricycle attachment; in addition to the setting up of the manufacturing unit in Cambodia. Additionally, a wheelchair production unit was established in Bucharest, Romania and the first technology transfer project started.

In Indonesia, a production unit, manufacturing mainly `active style` and tennis chairs and a rehabilitation course opened in Jakarta in 1994.  Motivation also introduced wheelchair tennis. The unit now produces a substantial number of tennis wheelchairs, which are in demand throughout Asia.

Many new projects followed:- Russia 1994, Malaysia, Lithuania and Nicaragua 1995, Albania and Afghanistan 1996, Sri Lanka 1997, El Salvador 1998, Tanzania 1999. In addition, returning to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to expand and add to projects with upgraded and new designs, including a further project for children with Cerebral Palsy.

Motivation’s work is not only about its 25 different wheelchair designs.  Its activities encompass employment for disabled people, training of technical staff, training for occupational and other therapists, design of specialist seating systems, education courses in life and personal skills, development of primary health care products, disability awareness training and much more besides.

In all of this, a great deal of care has been, and is taken, to ensure that in manufacture, environmentally friendly and sustainable low cost local materials are used, that local people and users have viable ongoing programmes and production units, with continuing technical support and advice where necessary.

Providing the appropriate wheelchair with the right training programme and supplementary equipment can of course often make all the difference to the life of disabled people.  Little wonder that David Constantine, in addition to those awards already mentioned, received a Paul Harris Award from Rotary International in 1995, was made a Honorary Fellow of Writtle College in 1996, and an Honorary Fellow by the Royal College of Art in 1999; and that in the same year the Royal Geographical Society and Discovery Channel made him the recipient of their Inspiration Award.

Yet, Motivation is not the only facet of David Constantine’s varied life. He is a photographer of note, holding exhibitions in the U.K and USA. He undertakes speaking engagements at conferences and in colleges and schools, as well as to Rotary and Lions clubs and other organisations.

David serves as a Trustee of the Design Museum and is a member of the Leonard Cheshire International Committee. He has also been a member of the BBC Appeals Committee since 1999.

If all this were not enough, one of David Constantine’s loves, that of travel, has ever continued despite the very real difficulties involved. In 2002 Spain, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and the USA were each visited and in March this year, not withstanding an earlier experience of having a Taliban AK47 jammed into the back of his head whilst in Kabul, David is returning to Afghanistan!

And yet, he still finds time to enjoy photography, the cinema and the company of his friends.

David Constantine could take for his personal motto Thomas Paine’s line from The Rights of Man ‘My country is the world, and my religion is to do good’. For with his co-founders and his excellent staff team, he has gone around the world and has done immense good.

Mr. Chancellor, I present to you David Peter Constantine: designer, photographer, award winner, globetrotter, motivator extraordinaire and bringer of hope to many thousands of disabled people around the world, as eminently worthy of the degree of Master of Science honoris causa.

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