Extended Interview

Ralf Hotchkiss

As co-founder of Whirlwind Wheelchairs International, its Chief Engineer, the principal instructor of the Whirlwind wheelchair design class, and a wheelchair rider himself, Ralf Hotchkiss has spent a lifetime trying to improve the lives of people living with disabilities. In this interview, FRONTLINE/World reporter Marjorie McAfee talks with him about the beginnings of Whirlwind, his design principles and his vision for the future of the company.

FRONTLINE/World: What is Whirlwind Wheelchair International?

Ralf Hotchkiss: Whirlwind Wheelchair International, based at San Francisco State University, is an organization of wheelchair inventors and builders here in the United States working with a network of wheelchair builders in developing countries. It is intended to help people in developing countries design the very best wheelchairs that can possibly be made and that can be built in developing countries for people to use in very rough conditions. 

How did you get started designing wheelchairs?

In 1966, I became a wheelchair rider myself. I was a college student at the time, studying engineering and physics, and I was also a bicycle builder. They gave me my first wheelchair; I took it out on the street, rode half a block, hit a crack in the sidewalk, and the chair became damaged beyond repair. And ever since I've been trying to improve my own wheelchairs and trying to find others with whom I can work.

How did you become interested specifically in designing wheelchairs for people in developing countries?

During the late 1960s and 1970s, I was looking all over the United States and Europe for people working on and inventing newer and better wheelchairs, but I couldn't find much of anybody -- a few people, doing it for sports, but not for every day. In 1980, when I visited Nicaragua, I met these four young fellows sharing one wheelchair, and they had already redesigned that wheelchair. They had ridden it so hard that it had broken in 20 different places. They had reinforced it, welded it all back together, and made it much stronger than it had been. And they knew so much about good wheelchair design. It was clear they were the people I was looking for to help me, and I could help them as well, so we've been working together ever since.

What is your background that allows you to know how to design wheelchairs?

I'm a mechanical engineer. I studied physics in college and then worked in part of the aerospace industry for some years as an engineer. I also used to build bicycles, which are very similar to wheelchairs. And, that's pretty much it.

You were in college when you started doing this work?

Yes, I was at Oberlin College when I became a wheelchair rider. The first chairs I had really didn't work very well. I started immediately trying to make something that would work better. The first chair I built we called “the caterpillar.” It had treads and tracks, and it worked great with a snowplow on the front. I could drive all the way from where I lived at the college, plowing everybody's walk along the way. And it worked nicely to go up stairs as well. There weren't many ramps or curb cuts in those days, but of course it wasn't that practical in some other ways. It was heavy. It was electric powered. It took two big auto batteries to make it go. And once it tore a big hole in a lady's carpet. That kind of pushed me back toward more practical wheelchairs. I did a lot of work on fancy wheelchairs at first -- all of them stair climbing and rough-ground mobile -- but none of them as good for everyday use as the kind of chairs that I ride today.


"Wheelchairs are very hard to get -- rare -- in developing countries. Most of the chairs that are there so far are second-hand chairs, which are really hospital chairs. They're not independent-living chairs. They're not the kind of chairs that I would ever accept for everyday living , to go everywhere I need to go. "

What is life like for people with disabilities in developing countries?

In developing countries, if you ride a wheelchair, things are hard. Pavement is rare. Public transportation is nonexistent. Virtually nobody I know who has a wheelchair has a car. So you push several kilometers every day, all the way to school, all the way to work. Everything you do, you have to go long distances over rocky or sandy or muddy roads. If there are curbs, if you're lucky enough to live in a town with drainage, you have to climb all the curbs because they don't have curb cuts yet, pretty much anywhere. And so it's hard on you; it's hard on the chair. But it's not as if that stops people from doing what they need to do. The people who we found tend to be members of very active organizations of disabled people, fighting for their own rights, getting out and doing everything that needs to be done.

What’s the availability of wheelchairs for people who need them in developing countries?

Wheelchairs are very hard to get -- rare -- in developing countries. Most of the chairs that are there so far are second-hand chairs, which are really hospital chairs. They're not independent-living chairs. They're not the kind of chairs that I would ever accept for everyday living , to go everywhere I need to go. These are chairs that are really made for flat floors indoors, and they're also not very strong. After a few days or weeks on rough roads in developing countries, they begin to break down. When they break down, repair people are not available in the country so, basically, people are riding on second-hand broken-down chairs. A few people have begun to build their own. A few small shops and companies have begun to make progress fighting with the problem, but there's a long way to go.

What’s unique about Whirlwind Wheelchair technology?

Our technology is a combination of ideas from all over the world -- trying to make chairs that are as strong as they can possibly be and as mobile as can be and as locally repairable, and as low-cost -- all of those things together. And we're most interested in making them cheap to use. We make them as cheaply as possible when they're new, but we don't compromise by lowering the quality just so that the initial price is a little bit lower. We look at how long it's going to last and make very careful decisions based on the combination of cost and toughness. Our chairs are chairs, like a good bicycle, that you can maintain for a lifetime.

Why don’t you patent the designs of your chairs?

We don't patent our chairs because we believe in open technology, like open software. Partly so that more people will help us design better chairs, so that we can trade technology. By giving away the technology, we always get back more than we give.

How does Whirlwind Wheelchairs operate throughout the world?

When we work with organizations building wheelchairs in other countries, we provide technical assistance, initial training if they need it. And after the training, we will bring groups up to date whenever there are improvements in wheelchair design. We try to keep them working with the latest and the best.

Can you explain what the Whirlwind Wheelchair network is?

The Whirlwind network is an informal organization of wheelchair riders and builders all over the world, working together, sharing ideas to make our chairs as strong and cheap and available as possible. Again, we share our ideas on an open-source basis, and we work with large companies in the United States, again trading technology. We watch them closely, closer than they watch us, unfortunately, so we benefit more from their work then they do from ours so far. Though, I think we're going to see some trickle up coming.

What is the RoughRider wheelchair?

The RoughRider is the chair I'm riding right now. It's our first successful long-wheel-base wheelchair. By making the wheelchair extra long, we get rid of the biggest hazard of riding a wheelchair, and that's falling forward. Regular wheelchairs, when they hit a crack in the sidewalk or any obstacle, have a terrible tendency to tip forward and dump you right on your face -- that’s the biggest cause of injury to wheelchair riders in the United States and all around the world. We discovered a type of wheel that enabled us to shorten the chair at the same time we lengthened the wheel base. We call that wheel the Zimbabwe wheel, because it was invented some 30 years ago by push cart builders in Zimbabwe, in order to solve the need for a low-cost, very soft, very flexible wheel that would last a long time and could be made locally. And it turns out to be by far the best wheel we've ever seen for the front of a wheelchair, because it can be so wide that it doesn't fall in the cracks in the roads but small enough to go right underneath the toes of the rider instead of behind the feet, like a regular wheelchair. It goes right underneath the toes and allows you to have a nice long wheel base, a very stable chair, but at the same time the whole chair is shorter.

Why was it necessary to come up with the RoughRider?

It was necessary to come up with the RoughRider because there was no other wheelchair that worked well enough in all of the difficult situations in developing countries: really, really rough ground and all the problems of purchase cost and maintenance cost and ease of repair -- all those issues -- as well as a relatively light-weight folding wheelchair. We needed to solve those all at once, and there was nothing else that quite did it. It took us, oh, 25 years, and thank goodness we had the help of all these people in all these countries or we never would have made it.

What is unique about your factory in Ho Chi Minh City?

The shop we're working with in Ho Chi Min is the largest shop we’ve worked with yet. And as they build more and more RoughRiders, they should be able to turn out thousands per year. The quality looks like it will stay high and, because the chairs are so widely adjustable and come in so many sizes, they should be able to provide a good fit for almost everybody and do it in the form of a chair that will be maintainable for a lifetime. It can run years and years with very little maintenance -- new tires, once in a blue moon; new bearings, once in several blue moons; a trip to the blacksmith to get some part hammered or welded. But that should be it. Like a good bicycle -- maintainable for a lifetime.

What are your hopes for Whirlwind and for the RoughRider?

I would like to see Whirlwind Wheelchair become unnecessary as soon as possible. I would like to help to develop a self-sustaining, competitive industry of wheelchair building all over the world, all over the developing world, that consists of little shops, little local shops, building chairs and doing repairs of any chair that comes their way. Then medium-sized regional shops turning out larger numbers of chairs and competing with the little ones to keep the quality high and the prices low, and much bigger shops to serve those areas that can't or don't yet have their own industry, to fill in all the gaps. Of course, developing that industry requires the best of the world's wheelchair design. It requires some financial assistance for many people to buy their chairs, especially their first chair -- before they can get a job, they need mobility. And, because so many people with disabilities start out so poor, we need ways to help them buy their first chair.
Once a full wheelchair industry -- including everything from repair to mass production and every level of production in between, large and small -- once that's fully developed, then we can move on to other things. Hopefully by then there will be so many people working on and inventing wheelchairs, making wheelchairs better than ever, that maybe in 10, 20, 30 years, we won't even recognize today's chairs -- they'll be history.