Ralf Hotchkiss

He was unusual from the start — Ralf Hotchkiss — wheelchair liberator for the world. I first met Ralf at Oberlin College over 25 years ago where he was majoring in physics and moving about the campus in a wheelchair after a bicycle accident rendered him a paraplegic in high school.

After graduation he came to work with the Center for Auto Safety and then started his own Center for Concerned Engineering. Invention came easily to Ralf and soon he came to the attention of the Veterans Administration which made him a consultant on wheelchair design.

Wheelchair production then was dominated by one multinational corporation. To Ralf and other similarly disabled, wheelchairs were not only very expensive, they were poorly designed and difficult to repair as well.

Hotchkiss decided to revolutionize wheelchair manufacturing by greatly simplifying and improving the durability, flexibility and repair likelihood of the product. He began with changing the language by telling friends that he is “not wheelchair bound or confined to a wheelchair.” Instead he says that he “has been liberated by a wheelchair.”

This engineer-for-the-people has liberated the wheelchair itself from the stagnant and price-gouging grip of its manufacturer.

Working out of his non-profit Center “Whirlwind Wheelchair International,” based at San Francisco State University, Hotchkiss has inspired and trained 33 wheelchair-makers in 25 countries. He travels to the remotest Third World countries to conduct workshops that teach people, with no previous experience, how to build sturdy, repairable wheelchairs that can tolerate rugged terrain without breaking down. Local inventiveness is consolidated into ever improving designs.

About 20 million people in the developing countries need wheelchairs but cannot afford them. Barely one percent of the demand is being filled. From Central America to Africa to Central Asia to Southeast Asia, Hotchkiss and his associates are instructing small builders of wheelchairs. Wheelchairs that could cost between $1000 to $2000 can now be built for $100 to $300 with higher quality and repairability at that. Local materials and tools found in an average bicycle shop will do the job.

Always reaching frontiers, Hotchkiss has new projects. One is a toddler’s wheelchair, low to the ground to allow interactions with peers, for children whose ages are from one to six.

Another is a new whirlwind wheelchair design that can cross more rugged terrain. He won’t be satisfied until he designs a wheelchair that can go up stairs practically.

A third project is to set up new distribution and marketing strategies to get wheeled mobility into the lives of people with fewer resources. Toward this goal, a trickle-up invention from Zimbabwe — a front caster wheel, was adapted from a pushcart originally seen in Harare, Zimbabwe — is already in use.

Bringing design and production to the areas where riders live creates employment for people with disabilities. This is the essence of self-reliance for independent living. Affordable and rugged wheelchair liberation means to Hotchkiss the “mobility that is the first hope of freedom and escape from isolation and full participation in family and community life.”

The Hotchkiss group recently launched a Whirlwind Women Project that brings women with disabilities into the process of design and production, emphasizing their skills and needs and in the management of these small enterprises.

“When your wheelchair is broken, it’s like being sick,” said Peninah Mutinda of the Kamukunji Workshop, Nairobi, Kenya. That sums up the crucial role that wheelchairs play in the lives of people who ride them.

Now comes the upside world we live in. Hotchkiss can’t raise nearly enough money to conduct more workshops and help establish small enterprises all over the world that make and repair these inexpensive, stunningly high quality, reliable and easily fixable wheelchairs.

Change the scene slightly. Three executives recently left three U.S. companies — Disney, AT&T and Columbia/HCA. The Disney and AT&T executives were asked to leave because of poor performance but they took away a compensation package worth $95 million (Disney) and about $30 million (AT&T). The Columbia/HCA was pushed out while his company is under numerous law enforcement actions and investigations for alleged widespread cheating and kickbacks in the health care area.

Hotchkiss is looking for a few hundred thousand charitable and therefore deductible, dollars. Winner of the MacArthur Genius Award and other accolades, one would think that some large foundations, with booming stock portfolios, would heed his pleas. One would think.

If you wish to make a charitable contribution or want more descriptive and pictorial materials on Whirlwind Wheelchair International, write to them at 1600 Holloway Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94132 (Tel. 415-338-6277).

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