Published on Thursday, October 10, 2002 by CommonDreams.org
Whirlwind Wheelchair International
by Ralph Nader
Corporate scandals, the threat of war in the Middle East and a sagging stock market are squeezing the flow of funds from foundations and other charitable donors across the nation. As a result, many worthwhile non-profit enterprises that depend on the generosity of these donors for survival are facing perilous times.
One of these organizations is Whirlwind Wheelchair International, a true jewel among the non-profits which is giving new hope and mobility to millions of disabled persons in the Third World.
Whirlwind is the brainchild of Ralf Hotchkiss, a MacArthur Genius Award winner. Working out of the WWI Center at San Francisco State University, Hotchkiss has traveled around the world setting up workshops and training workers to make low-cost durable wheelchairs out of locally-available materials.
Hotchkiss, himself rendered a paraplegic in a motorcycle accident in high school, recognized that providing U. S. manufactured wheel chairs was impractical and unworkable for third world countries. First, the wheelchairs were too expensive, most costing $1,000 to $2,000. Secondly, the standard wheelchairs were built for paved sidewalks and ramps, not the rough rocky and steep paths of third world countries. Thirdly, parts for the wheelchairs were unavailable or prohibitively expensive making repairs virtually impossible.
In his travels, Hotchkiss is constantly designing and redesigning to meet special needs in the developing countries. He has come up with new specifications for wheelchairs that can provide mobility in mountainous regions. He has designed special wheelchairs for women and a separate configurations for children. And most importantly, he searches out available local materials that are affordable and easily adapted to wheelchairs.
Currently, Hotchkiss is completing the design and testing of an off-road chair designed for ultra-rugged terrain. It meets all the standard indoor and outdoor criteria, but it can travel on slopes twice as steep as those deemed safe for a standard chair. A unique X-brace feature allows height/width flexibility so that the chair can "grow" as its owner grows from child to adult.
Hotchkiss explains the importance of using local components this way: "...it's much much better to start with wheelchairs built in the country made out of bicycle parts that are available locally, tubing that's available locally, canvass, and then whenever anything breaks you don't have to send it to the factory for spare parts, you just go to the local blacksmith and while you wait they can make any part."
Workshops with citizens trained by Hotchkiss are operating in two dozen developing countries including Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Vietnam, Cambodia, Palestine, Guatemala, Honduras, among others. And Whirlwind Wheelchair is continuing to reach out-and to liberate-the disabled in remote parts of the world.
The need for wheelchairs-affordable, durable and easily repaired wheelchairs-is staggering, particularly in countries ravaged by polio and preventable amputations. Whirlwind Wheelchair International estimates that twenty million people in developing countries need wheelchairs. Yet, only one percent own or have access to such transport.
In many of the countries which lack adequate supplies of workable wheelchairs, the disabled must be dragged, carried or left behind.
Whirlwind Wheelchair International at San Francisco State College has proven its worth. It has what is perhaps the world's most creative and imaginative designer and technical director of wheelchair technology in Ralf Hotchkiss. And WWI is fulfilling a clear and demonstrated need to provide mobility for the disabled-a necessity for a full and productive life for our fellow citizens around the world.
Yet this great success story may have a sad final chapter unless funding can be maintained. Not only does the Whirlwind Wheelchair face a fall off of contributions from foundations and other donors as the stock market drops and economic uncertainties mount, but its home base of San Francisco State University has been hit by cuts in the California state funding of education. That means funding cuts for Whirlwind Wheelchair International as well.
Despite the concern about the stock market and other economic uncertainties, it is inconceivable that this rich nation would let such a wonderful and successful project as "liberation for the disabled" wither for the lack of funds.
If you want to make a charitable contribution or want more information on Whirlwind Wheelchair International write them at 2600 Holloway Avenue, San Francisco, California 94132. The web address is http://whirlwind.sfsu.edu