Inventor’s Wheelchair Helps Disabled in The Third World

Nineteen years ago, a young teenager, Ralf Hotchkiss, had a bad spill when his narrow motorcycle tire caught in a road crevice. He was permanently disabled and shortly thereafter became permanently dedicated to helping invent new technology to assist other disabled people.

The first deficiency he noticed was the conventional wheelchair that he rode (Hotchkiss refers to all users of wheelchairs as “wheelchair riders”). Wheelchairs were not flexible enough for mobility and were very expensive. One company dominated the manufacture and sale of wheelchairs in the U.S. and priced them at three times what that same company priced them in Great Britain.
As a student at Oberlin College in Ohio, he began inventing improvements for wheelchairs. His wheelchair was adapted to climb stairs to reach his third floor dormitory at school. He even designed a stand-up model. He added a curb sensing cone for the blind.

After graduation he came to Washington where he established a small Center for Concerned Engineering that worked for stronger fire prevention standards, auto safety and improved equipment for the disabled. His success with inventions brought him to the attention of the Veterans Administration where he became a consultant on equipment for disabled veterans. He continued his refinements of wheelchair design, durability and cost of construction during the rest of the Seventies.

After moving to Oakland, California in 1980 with his wife Debby, an attorney who also is an advocate for the rights of the disabled, Hotchkiss turned his attention to Third World wheelchair riders. For most disabled people in these countries could not afford wheelchairs and needed a kind that would be adaptable to crowded living conditions and the roughness of crude roads and pathways.

The young engineer’s travels to South American and Asian countries impressed him with the critical difference that an economical, light, flexible and locally manufactured wheelchair could make for a rider’s ability to find employment, obtaining an education or reach a medical facility.

In five years he perfected the design for the “Torbellino” (whirlwind) wheelchair and inspired the start 01 local factories in Peru, Nicaragua, Honduras, Columbia, Paraguay, the Philippines, Malawi and Mexico. Soon to start are factories in Brazil and the Dominican Republic. Price of manufacture runs between $175 and $250 — a fraction of the price of an imported chair and technically more advanced.

The “Torbellino” has the features of a state-of-the-art wheelchair plus narrow-width, tight-turn ability, locking parking brakes, a swing-away footrest and a special armrest that makes it easier to get in and out of the footrest and chair. Hotchkiss did more than work with Third World colleagues; he helped organize an international conference in East Asia two years; ago of activists in the struggle to provide freedom of movements, for disabled people in the less developed world. He and Debby are firm believers that, as in the United States, progress starts with the aroused consciousness of disabled people themselves.

Hotchkiss; has no patents on his “Torbellino” wheelchair. Financially, his work has been supported by the non-profit Appropriate Technology International (ATI) institution in Washington, DC:. Together they have just published a guide titled “Independence Through Mobility”, to be distributed to builders and organizations interested in fostering wheelchair manufacturing operations in the Third World. The guide is a step-by-step “how to” secure capital, start operations and build the wheelchair.

I first met Ralf Hotchkiss while visiting Oberlin College. He said he wanted to come to Washington and help us in the consumer safety movement. We were delighted to say yes. Now, sixteen years later, his work is delighting thousands of people around the world and soon their number may be in the millions.

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