Ralf Hotchkiss & His Whirlwind Wheelchairs

Nearly forty years ago, a young high school motorcycle rider in Rockford, Illinois went over a grate, flipped over into the air and landed with a broken body. He became paraplegic. Because of the remarkable way Ralf Hotchkiss responded to his disability, thousands of people with disabilities here and in developing countries are now riding in durable, affordable wheelchairs.

He entered Oberlin College and graduated with an engineering degree. After interning with one of our groups as an undergraduate, he started the Center for Concerned Engineering where he began taking on a British corporation which monopolized wheelchair production and charged unaffordable prices for an inferior product. Hotchkiss began inventing improvements using inexpensive materials and then making them available publicly. He took no patents out on his inventions.

Not content with both helping start competitors to this British monopoly and perfecting wheelchair engineering design, Hotchkiss widened his area of advocacy to help make possible the great breakthroughs in access to buildings, airplanes, buses and trains for physically disabled people. You can witness the results everyday where wheelchair riders (as he prefers to call them) can participate in so many occupations, community and athletic activities formerly denied them.

Handing out wheelchairs to people-the charity model-did not appeal to this determined, problem-solving young man. First, the wheelchairs were not that good. Wheelchairs currently being imported from China are designed for hospital floors, not outdoors where paths and terrain are quite uneven. Such chairs can be dangerous to their occupants by breaking and tipping over riders. And, it is often difficult to obtain spare parts.

Hotchkiss started Whirwind Wheelchair International (WWI) to teach people in South America, Africa and Asia how to manufacture their own wheelchairs in small shop facilities.

The need is vast and growing. As WWI says: "Mobility is as basic as food and shelter, but 98% of the 20 million people who need wheelchairs in third world countries don't yet have one." Western models are prohibitively expensive. Locally produced designs can be not only much cheaper, more rugged and more drawing on locally available materials that simplify repairs, but they also elicit the pride and care that goes along with locally producing what you own.

Many of these shops are owned and operated by women with disabilities. More and more of the inventive ideas to improve a wheelchair's responses to the stresses, pressures and bumps are coming from riders and mechanics. One such invention was the Zimbabwe front caster wheel. It was adapted from a pushcart that was observed in Harare, Zimbabwe and is now used for negotiating rugged paths.

Based at San Francisco State University's School of Engineering, with key participation of Professor Peter Pfaelzer, Whirlwind Wheelchair International brims with new ideas. Hotchkiss is driven by a technical and moral imagination. He says, "Imagine not being able to go where you want, when you want. Imagine being stranded the last place someone set you down. Imagine the waiting, the frustration, the loneliness. Imagine it is lifelong." He aims to break what he calls "the imprisonment of immobility" by expanding his coalition to be beyond the nearly 50 workshops in 25 countries from Nicaragua to Uganda to Afghanistan.

Current initiatives include a new toddler's wheelchair for children one to six, built low enough to the ground to allow interactions with other small children. His valiant crew is pioneering new distribution and marketing strategies to get "wheeled mobility into the lives of people with fewer resources." Jobs are produced for people with disabilities along with greatly enhanced mobility.

Next year Hotchkiss will travel, in his easy riding wheelchair, to Columbia, Uganda, Eritrea, Vietnam and Thailand to launch or expand these production workshops. His energy is irrepressible; all obstacles and difficult circumstances, regarding his life's mission, are only problems to be methodically analyzed and dealt solutions.

Now, wouldn't you think his Center would be besieged with public and private donors? If you did you would be rational. But Hotchkiss's group is achieving every day. Foundations too often favor long-winded studies about what needs to be achieved like the endless large grants for groups to produce the redundant report on energy policies or ways of learning in schools. His group's non-profit budget, which was around $400,000 three years ago, is now down by half, to about $200,000!

The more he produces with fewer resources, the fewer resources he can raise. He is now down to four staff, including himself, to help turn around, with his sustainable and multiple trim tabs, the lives of 20 million people.

The U.S. government, which plows tens of billions of dollars into unneeded weapons systems from the wasteful Lockheed-Martin et al, which blows tens of millions of dollars regularly on foreign aid and consultants' projects which do not work, can't seem to lend Whirlwind Wheelchair International a hand. Imagine the goodwill for America's best instincts that some modest assistance will facilitate.

Hotchkiss has received the prestigious MacArthur "genius" fellowship and been given many engineering design and other major awards. It isn't as if he has trouble filling out a one page vitae. It is just our society's messed up, cruel priorities that prevent making possible thousands of more locally produced wheelchairs of rugged, affordable design, from rolling into their grateful riders' arms.

If you want to help or suggest sources of help, call Ralf Hotchkiss at (415) 338-1290, e-mail him at whirlwind@sfsu.edu or log into his website at whirlwindwheelchair.org. Contributions are deductible.

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