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
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
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