TOPICS > Health

Tough, Low-Cost Wheelchairs Needed in Haiti

February 18, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Spencer Michels reports on efforts in San Francisco to design and build heavy-duty, low-cost wheelchairs for use in the rough terrain of Haiti and around the third world.

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight: delivering mobility for those most in need.

“NewsHour” correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

SPENCER MICHELS: The heart-wrenching scenes from the earthquake in Haiti, the pictures of Haitians with crushed or missing limbs have inspired a special kind of response from thousands of miles away.

RALF HOTCHKISS, San Francisco State University: We could see people with new disabilities every day, and we knew already there’s a great shortage of wheelchairs in Haiti.

SPENCER MICHELS: Ralf Hotchkiss rides his own wheelchair around the campus of San Francisco State University, where, for 22 years, he has run a nonprofit that develops sturdy low-cost wheelchairs for underdeveloped nations and arranges for their distribution.

With estimates of more than 2,000 amputations in Haiti, Hotchkiss’ contacts there in the disabled community let him know immediately that thousands of Haitians would be needing the kind of chair he and his colleagues at Whirlwind Wheelchair International have built and improved and distributed around the world.

RALF HOTCHKISS: We’re having, so far, 350 chairs made in Vietnam and Mexico, and all sent to Haiti to be distributed to people both with spinal cord injuries and with amputations, usually dual amputations, who absolutely have to get mobility soon, before it’s too late.

SPENCER MICHELS: What they will be getting, courtesy of non- governmental organizations, are wheelchairs priced at about $200 manufactured in small, independent factories around the world.

Those chairs are designed in this mechanical engineering lab in San Francisco, which is where Hotchkiss and his staff teach design and construction.

MAN: What we’re going to start out with tonight is hand rim bending.

SPENCER MICHELS: Hotchkiss got involved 44 years ago, after he was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident. He learned fast that wheelchairs, even ones that cost several thousand dollars, weren’t very practical.

RALF HOTCHKISS: My first wheelchair lasted me half-a-block, and the front wheel was then ripped off by hitting a crack in the sidewalk. It was beyond repair.

SPENCER MICHELS: As an engineer, he began studying and observing wheelchairs.

RALF HOTCHKISS: We started at the end of 1979 in Nicaragua. I met some young fellows who were sharing one wheelchair. I was riding a homemade, fairly high-tech chair at the time. They looked at my chair and said, well, we know it’s going to break in a couple of places. And I knew they were right.

SPENCER MICHELS: He got some funding to do research and started working, by hand, putting together parts, like bicycle tires, to make the chairs stable, more durable, and more useful in the rough terrain that is so prevalent in Third World nations.

His latest model, the RoughRider, is in use in many poor countries. And, in fact, 50,000 Whirlwind wheelchairs have been bought over the years by nonprofit groups and then given away.

Hotchkiss and his staff test the theories on hills and in flower beds near the college science building.

RALF HOTCHKISS: There are parts of it that require the same skills that are required to go over unpaved roads and up and down rutted trails. Our chairs have a much longer length between the front and rear wheels than a typical chair.

We have tucked the footrest behind the front wheels, instead of hanging them way out front like a cowcatcher. We have also gone to mountain bike rear tires, and, thank goodness, those are more and more available all over the world.

And there’s no way you can — there’s no way you can break it. It’s got a bicycle hub in the middle, very cheap, very available.

SPENCER MICHELS: Whirlwind wheelchairs are easily repaired and modified, key elements in the poor nations. Hotchkiss insists that everyone in his class and on his staff — and most are not disabled — ride a wheelchair.

Laura Hunt is a senior majoring in anthropology.

LAURA HUNT, college senior: It’s definitely made me realize that accessibility is a completely different world. Unless you’re in a wheelchair, and get firsthand experience, you don’t often think of the small things, like being able to get the napkins in the dining center, or finding a fork, or how steep the grade of the hill is on this campus.

SPENCER MICHELS: For his role in raising awareness of the needs of the disabled and for his efforts to fill those needs, Hotchkiss was awarded a MacArthur Genius grant. His concern is worldwide, and he says that Haiti’s need for wheelchairs is hardly unique.

RALF HOTCHKISS: There are easily 25 million people in the developing world who need a wheelchair today and don’t have one.

SPENCER MICHELS: Twenty-five million?

RALF HOTCHKISS: And not only do they need a wheelchair, but they need the best of wheelchairs, because they have the worst of terrain, and they go the longest distances, no cars, no buses with lifts. They have to miles to get to work, to school.

SPENCER MICHELS: As Hotchkiss and his crew work to get RoughRiders to Haiti and other Third World nations, they are also looking bring durable, inexpensive wheelchairs made in Vietnam and Mexico to the United States, at a cost disabled Americans can afford, well below what they pay today.