20 Apr Driving Inclusivity – The Fadiel Italiana Story
One man’s passion to get people with disabilities behind the wheel
Fabio Domeneghini, the founder of Fadiel Italiana, recently celebrated his 70th birthday and we thought it was a good opportunity to look back on his achievements via the story of the company he created nearly 40 years ago.
Towards the end of the 1970s, Fabio Domeneghini, then a young and gifted engineer at Venice’s Marco Polo Airport, was determined to find an elegant solution to an ongoing issue: how to quickly and safely transfer people in wheelchairs on to airplanes.
Up to that point, the transfer was somewhat of an ordeal for both airport staff and the people in a wheelchair.
Two things struck Fabio as he contemplated the problem:
Firstly, as an engineer, to this point in time his profession hadn’t served people with disabilities well. In the 1970s awareness around these issues was low and the disabilities rights movement was in its infancy, but the situation at the airport made Fabio acutely aware of the many barriers the world, mostly through a lack of consideration, had placed in front of people with disabilities.
Secondly, that despite these barriers and the difficulties in transferring on to planes, Fabio noticed how excited the passengers in wheelchairs regarded airplane travel – it was even more liberating and transformative than for the other passengers.
Fabio’s solution at Marco Polo Airport was to design and build a folding platform that could be applied to various situations at the airport and provide access.
The challenge also lit Fabio’s passion for finding clever engineering solutions to common problems, and gave him the confidence to follow a new career. Fabio quit his job at the airport to start his own engineering company which he called Fadiel Italiana: FAbbrica (Factory) DIspositivi (Devices) ELettroidraulici (Electrohydraulic).
Setting up a small workshop to start with, Fabio was determined to work not just as an inventor, but as an inventor who would build and sell his inventions to the public. As Apple co-founder Steve Jobs famously said “Real artists ship”.
Fabio’s first product was a car clutch that someone could operate with their hand. The initial idea was to solve a problem for people who drove for a living – from cabbies to truck drivers – to reduce fatigue.
Fabio’s love of creating seamless and elegant solutions led him to combine the clutch control with the gear lever. He added a switch to the usual gear lever head, requiring a larger knob and the so-called ‘duck’ clutch was born.
In an era where automatic cars were expensive and not as common as they are now, this was a real breakthrough.
Fabio’s experience at the airport had also stayed with him. He thought about how creating equipment that enabled people with disabilities to drive themselves would lead to a new found independence that would change people’s day-to-day mobility. The possibility of using his new ‘duck’ clutch for this purpose was not lost on him and he soon found a receptive market.
As a consequence, Fabio got closer to ‘duck’ clutch users who had a different set of challenges to other drivers. Being an inventor keen to solve problems, and someone who understood the importance of listening to his customers, Fabio quickly came up a slate of potential inventions that he realised could have a profound and positive impact.
In this way, Fabio moved his focus from solving problems for long distance drivers, to creating opportunities for people with disabilities to drive.
That you can zoom forward 40 years to the Fadiel of today – a company with cutting edge equipment distributed around the world – is testament to Fabio’s passion, skill, inventiveness and his keen eye for using new technology to solve those problems and then keep improving the solutions.
The journey had many milestones: immediately after the clutch, Fabio produced the “pull and push” accelerator-and-brake lever. Initially this was mechanically operated by hand, but soon an electronic version followed that made it even easier to use.
The range was expanded via the ‘twin’ company SMDM – Soluzione Meccaniche Domotiche Meccatroniche – to specialise in accessibility equipment like ramps and lifts.
Solutions and products became more refined and high tech and included devices that allow almost anyone to drive a vehicle like the joystick control that operates steering, acceleration and braking.
Each breakthrough encouraged Fabio and his Fadiel team to push the boundaries. Radio controlled equipment became Bluetooth controlled, products started using composite materials that increased strength whilst being lighter.
Keeping up-to-date with the latest breakthroughs and using them in products has led Fadiel to not only survive, but to thrive and take the lead.
It’s no coincidence that Fadiel supplied the equipment to get former Formula 1 driver and CART champion Alex Zanardi racing competitively again after a double leg amputation in a track accident.
And it was Fabio and his team that provided the equipment to make Venice’s famed Gongolas accessible to wheelchair users.
Closer to home, Fadiel Italiana equipment enabled Alan “Hammer” Bloore to safely complete the legendary Targa Tasmania rally with his son as navigator.
Production remains in Italy, with all products and their components manufactured by Fadiel with an uncompromising focus on quality, safety and reliability. The small workshop is long gone. The headquarters have changed four times as the company expanded, and now reside in 15 thousand square metres in Meolo, a town just outside of Venice.
Fabio is still very much actively involved at Fadiel and energised by the fact that, almost 40 years on, there are technical challenges that haven’t yet been conquered, and therefore products yet to be invented that can have an even greater impact on the world around him.
As well as happy customers, Fabio is also proud of the working environment he has created that supports and allows his team to shine. On his office wall, hanging alongside various awards and certificates is a picture of a beaming Fabio celebrating his 70th birthday, surrounded by all his employees and collaborators, a picture of harmony.
Much has been achieved in 40 years, but you also feel that in Fabio’s mind, the best years of Fadiel Italiana are still ahead.