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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Ralf Hotchkiss and Wheelchair Design

Moscow — This is a strange time for consumers in the Soviet Union’s largest city. If they shop in the state-owned stores, they find supplies short and lines long. If they go to a large open area where private markets have sprung up, they find supplies ample but prices very high. The former is communism and the latter is called capitalism — soiled by a protection racket that snakes down the stalls and shops.

It would never have happened fifty years ago even if Ralf Hotchkiss was the fighter for the disabled that he is today. What he is doing and how he is doing it are the results of the aroused civic action initiatives taken by disabled people and groups to gain physical access to mainstream society and employment opportunities.

Hotchkiss has been part of this movement for twenty years — since his graduation as an engineering major from Oberlin College and a few years after his motorbike spill which left him a paraplegic. After graduation he came to work with us for a few years and then moved to Oakland, California, with his wife Debby (also a fighter for the rights of the disabled) where he continued to improve wheelchair design and teaching third world peoples how to build them cheaply.

So it was a pleasant surprise to have a chance meeting with Ralf at National Airport in Washington last week:. The conversation went like this:

“Hey, Ralf, good to see you. Where have you been?”

“I just got back from Siberia.”

“Siberia? By yourself?”

“Oh, yes. I spent a couple of weeks at a factory whose workers want to moonlight the manufacture of wheelchairs. During the day, they pretend to work and the managers pretend to pay them. Then at night, the factory comes alive, productivity zooms upward as they produce what they want to Produce.”

“Where are you going now?”

“To Oakland, but since the plane was overbooked, I voluntarily gave up my seat and will get a free ticket. I’ll have to spend the night at O’Hare airport.”

“All night?”

“Yes, no problem, I have a ton of material with me that I have to read through and this will give me a good opportunity to do so.-

Some would be astonished at wheelchair-bound Ralf Hotchkiss behaving in this way. But then Ralf would call himself wheelchair-mobile apropos the name of his Wheeled Mobility Center at San Francisco State University where he teaches technicians ‘from all over the world.

Less than one percent of the estimated 20 million potential ‘wheelchair riders in the Third World own a wheelchair. There are three ways to meet this huge demand, apart from prevention of the disabling injuries and diseases in the first place.

One way is to import wheelchairs. Hotchkiss says the initial cost is too high and repair parts must come from the manufacturer at too high a price also. The second way is by gift. This undermines local manufacture, as it did in Malawi, adds Hotchkiss. Far better is a foreign gift of start-up capital to local builders of wheelchairs and consumer credit funds for their purchase.

Hotchkiss has developed a plan whereby a Third World production rate of one million chairs per year could meet the needs of working age riders in the Third World by the year 2001. There is a long way to do. India, for example, produces less than 20,000 units per year. This is 40 percent of total production in Asia, Africa and South America.

A ten year start up plan of $400 million can train, capitalize and maintain the productive capacity for wheelchairs that could do the job. Hotchkiss has already trained over 100 mechanics to build the Torbellino Wheelchair. Fabrication is taking place at 25 shops in 1 E countries — most of which he has visited and initiated. The chair is designed to be light in weight and durable.

If any large philanthropist wants a practical crusade that will open productive lives for some of the most valiant and upbeat people in this world of ours, contact Mr. Hotchkiss at the Wheeled Mobility Center, San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway Avenue, San Francisco, California, 94132 (Telephone # (415) 336 – 1174.)