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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Ralf Hotchkiss & Whirlwind Wheelchairs

It’s a dream media world for Ralf Hotchkiss. When he travels around the United States, television crews meet and follow him. Hordes of reporters attend his events and press conferences. He is on the special invitation lists for the White House, Park Avenue and Beverly Hills extravaganzas, including the Academy Awards Gala and Presidential Inaugurations.
Movie offers, book deals, and honorary awards pile up in his San Francisco office. Polls show that he is one of the most admired people in America and at the top of the list of role models for pre-teens age 10 to 12.

He is used to all this attention and adulation, having been doing what he is doing for over twenty five years. He welcomes the widespread interest, because it has helped mightily to expand the resources available, including the talented people who, having heard of him and joined his work that has now spread to many foreign countries, especially the poorer ones in the Third World.

You see, Ralf Hotchkiss is the world’s most practical wheelchair designer and most successful teacher of thousands of people around the globe who have learned to build their own durable wheelchairs from local materials. With twenty million people in the world in immediate need of being “wheelchair liberated” (Hotchkiss , words), little wheelchair construction shops are operating in about 30 countries.

As the founder and technical director of Whirlwind Wheelchair International at San Francisco State University, Hotchkiss and his associates are expanding the functional uses of wheelchairs beyond the mobility and access to family and community life that they make possible.

He is designing special wheelchairs for children, and arranges and conducts workshops for women from various foreign countries to learn how to start their own manufacturing shops. From Zimbabwe to Vietnam, Kenya, Siberia, India, Central Asia, Central America, Hotchkiss-trained natives are building high performance wheelchairs for one-tenth of the price charged by the large western Wheelchair companies. Twenty million potential wheelchair riders could have their liberation chair for a total of about 4 billion. This is the cost of just two of the ten more B-2 bombers that Congress insists be funded over the Pentagon’s objection.

Hotchkiss invites accolades by his actions. He teaches so well that his students from developing countries begin teaching him about stress analysis (rough paths and roads there), fatigue prevention, and choices of material for repairability. He took on the Goliath of the wheelchair industry, helping the Justice Department end the monopoly of Everest & Jennings. He aspires to designing a wheelchair that can practically climb steps (already he bounces down stairs).

The past quarter century has witnessed the rise of the disability rights movement and its opening up access – both physical, economic, and psychological. Special Olympics have helped. A segregation began to dissolve and wondrous talents and opportunities emerged from people of all ages who were shut out from society.

That is why the Ballad of Ralf Hotchkiss – the greatest whirlwind wheelchair rider – is a best selling perennial on the music charts. His story, starting with a motorcycle accident in 1966 which deprived him of the use of his legs, four years at Oberlin and then on to Washington to start the Center for Concerned Engineering, his inventions of eight mobility devices which he refuses to patent and keeps in the public domain for anyone to use, and his move to the Bay Area in California to commence his global initiative.

Hark! It was a dream! Everything Hotchkiss has done is real, but not the mass media publicity. There are no crush of journalists, no movie and book deals, no polls or ballads. Only an occasional article in a national publication and a MacArthur Genius Award. All the people he has helped liberate think of him with affection as he, a paraplegic, journeyed to their remote areas around the world.

But he doesn’t fit the mass media definition of a raging celebrity. He is not Monica Lewinsky, Dennis Rodman, Madonna, nor a Dr. Kevorkian. He is just serious, inventive, pioneering, daring, compassionate, practical and successfully committed to replicating his great visions through people everywhere who want the basic freedoms – to move, work, play and achieve, notwithstanding their physical disabilities In short, a leader for millions now and in the future. But just not headline stuff for the Media Moguls.

(You can contact Ralf Hotchkiss at (415) 338-6277 or mail [email protected] or 1600 Holloway Avenue, San Francisco, CA, 94132.)