A new identity
Felling reinvents himself after life-changing crash
RICE – Mark Felling has long been an adventurous guy – skydiving, building his own motor scooter, and rebuilding several boats and motorcycles as a high school student – and with a degree in electrical engineering, the Albany native had endless possibilities ahead of him.
But it’s his adventurous personality that ultimately resulted in a life-changing experience. After a plane crash twelve years ago, Felling suffered injuries that have now confined him to a wheelchair. But Felling turned his unfortunate situation into a positive one by creating a company that makes devices for people with disabilities.
On July 2, 2003, Felling, the son of Earl and Darlene Felling of Albany, was piloting his own two-seater airplane above the Minnesota River Valley, practicing some takeoffs and landings, when the plane’s engine died. Aiming to land near a group of trees, Felling began to descend.
Only 40 feet off the ground, the plane’s rear wing caught a strong tree and flipped the plane over with Felling underneath, breaking his neck, causing him to become a C4-C5 quadriplegic.
“In a sense, the plane crash was inevitable,” Felling said. “When I was in rehab, they go through a list of how people break their neck and as they’re going through the list, I’m saying to myself ‘been there, done that’ on most of them.”
After the crash, it took an hour and a half to remove him from the remnants and he was flown to Hennepin County Medical Center. There, he stayed in ICU for a month.
“There’s a comical story often told among my family from when I was in ICU,” Felling said. “My uncle was leaving and, through my drugged state, I asked him to bring six sheets of pink insulation to my hospital room. I wanted to build a box around my bed so I could sleep without all of the lights and noise. I don’t remember that, but my mom jokes that I was dead serious. It took them some time to laugh it off in the hallways. I think that made them feel better since I was hooked up to a ventilator and all of these tubes.”
Following his stay in ICU, in acute rehab where Felling learned the logistics of his disability. He also went through a state of depression.
“I confided in my mom, and probably no one else, that I would have been better off dead. Everyone says I’m so upbeat, but I cried myself to sleep many nights for many months,” Felling said.
But he didn’t give up or try taking his life. Instead, he found ways to make life better for people like himself.
The last day of rehab, Felling was able to build his Power Grip to allow him to pick things up.
“People think I can use my fingers, but my fingers are passively moving as the Power Grip moves my wrist,” Felling said.
He recalls his accomplishment on that day.
“That last day in rehab, I picked up a piece of pizza and ate it. I thought it was so cool that I could eat pizza without having to cut it up and eat it with a fork.”
When he got out of rehab in 2004, Felling went straight back to school, obtaining his master’s degree in business administration and by 2005, he had started his own manufacturing company. He credits the start of his business to his time in rehab.
“It really did start there, because I was researching what it meant to be disabled. I found it appalling that there wasn’t much help for quadriplegics. So I started to have parts shipped to my rehab room and I created a voice recognition cell phone interface to connect to my wheelchair,” Felling said. “I’d be tooling down the hallway talking on the phone and a lot of people asked where they could get one. That was my wake up call.”
Now, with Broadened Horizons, Felling and his team of six employees are working to make lives better for others with disabilities.
“What my customers appreciate most is that our products are designed by the disabled,” Felling said.
The company makes a variety of products for those with disabilities, including adaptive video game controllers, voice recognition user interfaces, the Power Grip, the Command Center and more.
The Command Center is a specially designed desk for those in wheelchairs, allowing them to turn slightly and have the same amount of workspace as an L-shaped desk. It also provides a more stable posture for the disabled with its elevated middle section, causing less pain.
In addition, Felling and his employees have worked to create the Sky Chariot and the Road Chariot, a wheelchair-accessible airplane and motorcycle, but neither of these products is officially for sale yet.
“My idea was to be able to roll into the plane or onto the motorcycle and be able to go,” Felling said.
He is also working to create a cockpit for around a bed, which would be equipped with water, a holder for a laptop or tablet, a voice recognition device and controls for various things. He would have it adaptable to the bed at night and the wheelchair during the day.
“It would allow them all of the same possibilities as someone who is able to walk, but they wouldn’t even have to go anywhere,” Felling said.
The mission of the company is to change the lives of the disabled, and Felling firmly believes he’s done that already.
“I could go get a job in the corporate world and make three times more money, but I would come home at the end of the day and no one says thank you. It feels thankless,” Felling said. “At the end of the day now, my employees and I are told, ‘Oh my gosh, thank you. You changed my life.’ That’s what I set out to do – change people’s lives, to change the world. I can definitively say with confidence today that within the last 10 years, we have changed the world.”
In addition to making a difference with his company, Felling is also a motivational speaker, mainly for the disabled.
Felling’s main focus is to help people who are struggling and ready to give up on life.
“For people who think they can’t do anything, they need to rethink what they can do, what their strengths are,” Felling said. “Empowerment has to come from within, that you have to feel it for yourself, internally.”
By providing equipment such as the Power Grip, a voice recognition device and other equipment, Felling works to show them what is possible.
“There are a lot of people that struggle those first couple years after their injury,” Felling said. “I recognize that I provide an example to people, especially in that first one to three years, of what life could be like later if they try to pursue and strive for it. I paint that picture of possibilities in their minds. Even though I still have things I struggle with, life is worth living if you have something to live for and I certainly do.”