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Wheels for the World

Program 9909
March 2, 1999


Ralph Hotchkiss, Technical Director and Founder, Whirlwind Wheelchair International

Dave Kaplan, Volunteer, Whirlwind Wheelchair International

Jan Sing, Developer, Whirlwind Wheelchair International

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

RALPH HOTCHKISS: If we buy wheelchairs here, or even accept free donations here, send them south, in a few weeks or a few months they’ll all be broken and then what are you going to do for spare parts? A pair of replacement rear wheels on an American wheelchair typically costs more than building a whole chair from scratch in-country.

KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, better wheelchairs and better lives around the world.

JAN SING: There’s a lot of barriers to people in all countries and the only way to start removing those barriers is to get people out into society, out speaking to their government officials and kind of lobbying for their own rights. So my idea is that if they have mobility they can get out and they can start meeting each other, seeing what kind of common problems they have, what common ideas and how to work together and create some change.

PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.

[sound of a power tools]

PORTER: Twenty million in the developing world need wheelchairs. A small group of folks at San Francisco State University are working to fill that need.

[sound of a power tools]

RALPH HOTCHKISS: We’ll be able to use 3/4-inch thin-wall chrome-moly tube here instead of 5/8 inch…

PORTER: These sounds are from Whirlwind Wheelchair International. Ralph Hotchkiss, the technical director and founder, is working at the design chalkboard with some colleagues.

WHEELCHAIR DESIGNER: Do we have a tube that would fit over a ¾-inch tubes?

HOTCHKISS: Yes, we have 7/8 tubing.

WHEELCHAIR DESIGNER: And that will fit our…?


WHEELCHAIR DESIGNER: ‘Cause we were thinking about a quick release…

HOTCHKISS: Back to the mid-‘60s I was building my own wheelchairs. It was much easier to make my own than to earn the money to pay the high prices for the American chairs. And also I could make them a lot stronger then most of the commercial chairs at that time. Chairs have gotten much better now. But back then we didn’t have much of a choice at all. And so when I visited Nicaragua in 1980 on vacation, I was riding a homemade chair—at that time it was kind of a fancy four-wheel drive, manually propelled. The Nicaraguans looked at my chair, said, “Well, that’s interesting, it’s a nice design but we see some things wrong with it. We expect it’s going to fail here, here and here.” And they were absolutely right, I found out a few months later. And four of them, four teenagers, were sharing one wheelchair. A couple of them were great mechanics and they were the ones who started up the shop. They wanted my help in getting started and I wanted their help in making my chair better. And so it was a nice trade.

[sound of a power tools]

HOTCHKISS: Been building chairs for 32 years. Been working in, specifically in developing countries for 18. And why? Because there aren’t any good wheelchairs yet and I need all the help I can get in trying to make them work decently. And I get more help from people in developing countries than from all the Americans. We’re more worried about buying our next one. They have no possibility of buying their next chair so they have to get down and cut and weld and build whatever they can.

PORTER: I see wheelchairs all the time. Why can’t we just buy a bunch of wheelchairs and send them to people who need them? What’s the problem with that way of thinking.

RALPH HOTCHKISS: If we buy wheelchairs here, or even accept free donations here, send them south, in a few weeks or a few months they’ll all be broken and then what are you going to do for spare parts? A pair of replacement rear wheels on an American wheelchair typically costs more than building a whole chair from scratch in-country. Typically over $200 just for replacement rear wheels. And they are among the parts that tend to go bad. Much, much better to start with, wheelchair, wheelchairs built in the country made out of bicycle parts that are available locally, tubing that’s available locally, canvass, and then whenever anything breaks you don’t have to send to the factory for spare parts, you just go to the local blacksmith and while you wait they can make any part.

PORTER: Maybe when someone hears about this project they think, “Oh, those people in San Francisco, they build wheelchairs and send them around the world.” But that’s not what you do, is it?

HOTCHKISS: Not a chance. That would, if we could build wheelchairs day and night for the rest of our lives it would never make a tiny dent in the problem. Twenty million people need wheelchairs today. Our network has only made 15,000 so far. We never could have built that many ourselves. It’s only ‘cause there’s a few hundred of us around now in 25 countries working on it that we’ve been able to get that far. But again, we got a whole lot further yet to go.

[sound of a power tools]

PORTER: As you can hear we’re in the shop here in San Francisco. What happens actually in this facility? What do you do here?

HOTCHKISS: Here at San Francisco State University we have a class in wheelchair design and construction. Everybody builds a chair from scratch, complete including making our own hubs, bearings, footrests, sewing our own canvass, and then they ride it home if they’re wheelchair riders. And if they come from another country then they also leave with a set of their own jigs and fixtures that they’ve built that will serve to hold all the parts in the right form while they weld the chair together.

PORTER: How easily then from that point would it be to set up production somewhere else?

HOTCHKISS: Still not that easy. They may need to raise $20,000-40,000 in order to get over a year’s start-up period, get to the point where they can break even.

PORTER: What kind of materials do you find are the most universally available?

HOTCHKISS: Tubing, now made all over the world, usually out of imported sheet metal, made in little local factories for the restaurant furniture market. All these tubular chairs and tables. And we’re piggy-backing on that technology. Also bicycles are available everywhere. The hubs and axles are too weak for wheelchair use because a wheelchair’s axle can only be supported on one side, unless you make the chair extremely wide and have a fork to the outside of the wheel, which is not a good idea. And so we have to make our own hubs and axles. Bearings are also not universally available for a reasonable price. The same bearings that cost us, say, $12.00 for 12 bearings here can cost $100 in much of Africa. Same thing has happened in the Philippines and Nicaragua during war years, during times in which the international banks would not extend credit to the local importers. And because of that serious problem—more of a political and a marketing problem than a real problem—but because of that we make our own bearings out of common nails with the heads cut off; make a little roller bearing or a needle bearing. And canvass is pretty much universally available, so we make our own upholstery. The tubing is bent around hand forms, welded together. That’s pretty much it. You don’t need much more to make a good wheelchair.

PORTER: Walk me through the different wheelchair designs that you had. You started off with what you called the “Whirlwind I.” And when was that? And then how did you progress from that point?

HOTCHKISS: In 1980 we built or first chair in Nicaragua. And by 1982 the design had leveled off in what we call the Whirlwind I. And it was a nice lightweight, 35-pound—the standard chairs at that time were 50 pounds—and folding, full-featured wheelchair. And then by the late ‘80s, early ‘90s we had another design called the Whirlwind II. It’s being made now in Siberia. It’s a higher tech chair. It’s one that you can narrow to fit through a skinny door and then widen again. That was important because all the elevators in Siberia are 23 inches wide at the doorway. And Russians are little wider on the average than Central Americans as well. And so they needed to squeeze all they could. But that chair wasn’t really appropriate for most of the really poor countries. Russia is not a poor country by the standards of most of the world. And so we were pushed back to our original design.

But by ’95 we had found some breakthroughs that solved some of the difficulties in building that original design. It had gotten a little lighter, a little stronger, and much cheaper. We called that chair the Whirlwind I-Africa. Along the way we came up with a Whirlwind III, which is an even higher tech chair, very nice, lightweight. You can squeeze it again to get through narrow doors. And it has a lot of flexibility. And that’s a chair that’s actually spinning off from our chair, from our project into manufacture in the wealthy world. It’s being made in prototype form so far by a company in Texas. And that may be our first big example of trickle up from the Third World to the North.

PORTER: Because you’re using things that you learned doing this in the Third World to design, to come up with the ultimate design here?

HOTCHKISS: More than using things that we learned, we’re stealing good ideas from the most active inventors in the world today, the people in the Third World who are trying to do what we did a hundred years ago and improve their whole way of living through technology.

PORTER: Where in the world are your chairs being made?

HOTCHKISS: So far in 25 countries. Most of the first ones were in Latin America, then Philippines, Sri Lanka, now several in Africa. In Kenya, several shops in Kenya; Uganda, we’re hoping to start one up soon. A shop in Zambia. And one in Zimbabwe has been going for ten years now.

JAN SING: I’ve been to Nicaragua. And then about 12 countries in Africa.

PORTER: And is this something that you, I mean you personally find this rewarding?

SING: Oh yeah.

PORTER: Jan Sing has been developing new wheelchair designs for over four years.

SING: I love to travel, that’s one. But it’s really nice to be able to go to a place and actually work with people. And starting, I mean, instead of just being a tourist or a visitor and just seeing people, we’re actually working trying to develop something together. And the challenge is challenging. But it makes it more rewarding when something really comes together.

I guess the, kind of the big mission statement is to help people live independently. And that kind of goes back to, there’s a lot of barriers to people in all countries and the only way to start removing those barriers is to get people out into society, out speaking to their government officials and kind of lobbying for their own rights. But if people don’t’ have any way to get around to get out of the house they’re probably going to be staying at home, dependent on their family. And so my idea is that if they have mobility they can get out and they can start meeting each other, seeing what kind of common problems they have, what common ideas and how to work together and create some change.

PORTER: I see wheelchairs all over the place. Why can’t we just raise money and buy wheelchairs and send them to people who need wheelchairs?

SING: A couple of things. One is that the parts aren’t replaceable. So in the United States when you have a caster wheel and it breaks you send, you talk to the manufacturer and have them send you out a new one. In a Third World country usually the people that are buying the wheelchairs are going to buy one wheelchair for the person; it may have to last them a lifetime. And people don’t see the importance of maintenance and repair and keeping the wheelchair going after that. They want to give the money, they did their good deed, and move on to the next person. So that’s one thing.

It’s also the materials that are used in most of the wheelchairs here. People in these developing countries can’t repair them. They’re made with finely machined parts which are going to be really difficult to do. They are made with aluminum so you’re going to need TIG welding or something fancy. Just like the sizes of the nuts and bolts are going to be different, so you’re going to have to tear the wheelchair apart to put it back together again. That’s another thing.

The other is that they’re usually made for, the wheelchairs manufactured for the United States are usually made for nice, smooth floors. And the amount of nice, smooth floors that you find are very few. I mean, people just in their houses, they’re living on dirt floors. And they’re using a broom to sweep it up and that tends to create little low spots and it’s just the lifestyle is different than it is here.

It’s kind of like comparing a mountain bike compared to a road bike. And yet imagine being on a mountain bike in the middle of nowhere, or way out back somewhere, there’s no tools, very little places to buy spare parts, and something breaks. Or you’re in your road bike trying to get over Mount Samulpius?? on some of the dirt roads or something.

There’s two challenges in the design. One is to make it out of materials that are locally available, that you can get in small towns in Third World countries. And the other is to make it actually fit the terrain, which is basically off-road.

PORTER: You don’t actually make, manufacture, assembly line produce, wheelchairs here. Is that correct?

SING: Right. We basically do design development here. And where the design is made for small shops that are making usually one chair at a time.

PORTER: In how many places around the world—or tell me something about the way you share the designs. Once you’ve done this, then what is the process, or how do you get the, from the design how do you actually get wheelchairs to people?

SING: We usually work, try to work with people in other countries, a disability organization that have the infrastructure to be able to support a shop and to keep it going, to be able to run the accounts and stuff like that. And we train them. And we try to provide what other technical advice we can on an on-going basis. We also have a newsletter that we’re trying to get out once a year so usually I’ll ask people what kind of problems you’re having or whatever, they write back to me and I’ll try to put answers to those questions in the next newsletter. So that we’re responding to specific questions they have. And then we also ask if they have any ideas that they want to share with other people in our network. So it’s trying to develop this cross-fertilization, getting people exposed to new ideas and so people can work off of what somebody else has done in the past.

PORTER: In a moment we’ll hear more about the wheelchair project at San Francisco State University.

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JAN SING: …we can screw it in here and we have the washers here, the bearings in between, right there. So that way it’s actually, this nut….

PORTER: Back at the design chalkboard, Jan Sing is working with a student from Connecticut, Honora Hunter.

HONORA HUNTER: This is rounded out like this?

SING: This is welded here. Yeah, this is the hub right here. These are the needle bearings.

HUNTER: Okay, so this is the bolt, all the way around. Like that.

SING: Yeah. This is the bolt, this is the nut.

HUNTER: Jan drew up a couple of designs and she’s having me do my best to put them together.

PORTER: This kind of welding equipment, is it something that people elsewhere in the world have access to?

HUNTER: As far as I know, Ralph has told me, pretty much anywhere in the world you can, you’ve got oxygen-acetylene welding. It’s just really common. You can find steel tubes and these kind of welders. So like with this particular, this—well, any of the chairs that we make—you can pretty much fix them easily if they break. But they don’t tend to break cause we make ‘em pretty strong.

[with sound of welding in the background]

This particular piece is part of the side frame to a child chair, a prototype child’s chair that we’re making. We’re trying to make a chair that can be easily made in, anywhere in the world, with like, common materials. With steel rods and brass brazing and….

PORTER: The children’s chair you hear mentioned is of special interest to Dave Kaplan, a volunteer at Whirlwind Wheelchair International.

DAVE KAPLAN: This is kind of the low cost, flexible, what’s sometimes called a scooter board.


KAPLAN: Instead of a wheelchair that’s made out of tubing and everything, it’s a piece of plywood with an axle. It’s got, this has 12-inch wheels on it. And it’s got positions for 16-inch wheels and 20-inch wheels. And then we’re using just, we’re going to actually build, I built some casters for front wheels that, if we develop ‘em, that’ll be similar to the ones we use on the wheelchairs. Which we’ll actually make the tires and wheels ourselves. But these are just commercial rotating casters that we’re going to use on ‘em. And the idea with this is you can drill holes in this thing and place things wherever you want them. The positions aren’t fixed, like they are on a wheelchair. You know, so you don’t have micro-adjustment. You can do anything. You can make it a center—you can make it a center drive with the drive wheels in the middle. With casters on both sides you can make it like a conventional rear drive with the casters in the front. Or you can make it a front-wheel drive by turning it around. And you can use it as a platform. It’s a piece of plywood so on top of that piece of plywood you can do kind of anything you want. You can put a seat on it.

PORTER: Depending on who it’s intended for?

KAPLAN: Right. And this is really intended for kids. And the idea is there’s very little for really small kids. You know, for like, kids that would be toddlers. Eighteen months, two years.

PORTER: But what I mean is you could, this give you flexibility to do different things depending on the particular disability that you’re.

KAPLAN: Depending on the disability, but also with little kids they don’t fit into the model of a conventional wheelchair very well. They don’t want to sit up.


DAVE KAPLAN: They’re little kids. They’re 18 months old or whatever they are. Two years. Sitting up in a chair is, you try getting them to sit up in a chair. So the idea is this. You don’t put a chair in it necessarily. They can lie down on this. They can kind of crawl, it’s like a crawler, almost. And the presumption is we’re going to test it with some kids, but the presumption is that they’ll figure out how to move around on it. Either by moving the wheels or by putting their hands on the floor, or whatever they want to do.

PORTER: Where might something like this be used?

DAVE KAPLAN: Well, I mean everything we do is kind of projected into the Third World. So, I mean this could be used anywhere, obviously. But the idea is to, for use in the Third World somewhere. And this particular thing kind of lends itself more to in-it’s, kind of think of it as a stroller that the kid could possible self-propel on. So at home, for a kid at home, it would be for getting around the house to where they normally crawl or toddle. And out in the community if they’re going to be going for any distance the presumption is little kids aren’t going to be flying along doing distance anyway, so we’re going to put, develop some kind of handle, pull ropes. We’re going to come up with some ideas for a parent to use this as a means of carting kids around.

PORTER: All this design is sort of done almost on the fly. Is that what you’re saying? I mean, as you, as the needs come up you think about new designs?

KAPLAN: Well, yeah, I mean, there’s like an awakening for everybody in this stuff. I didn’t, I haven’t done this for my whole life. There are people with tons of experience and there are people who have done a lot of this stuff. So you kind of, in some sense reinvent the wheel yourself. But the needs, the more you know about this stuff the needs are pretty apparent. And it’s a matter of coming up with a good set of solutions. There are already solutions for this stuff. I think it’s a matter of coming up with a good set of solutions and an easily executable set of solutions.

[sound of a power tools]

PORTER: The children’s chair is just one part of the Wheelchair Project’s future. Jan Sing is creating a network of women to build chairs.

SING: So I have a pilot project to work with disabled women in Uganda and Kenya. And then this summer we’re actually going to have an intensive course trying to get people from Third World countries to our shop here to train them for one month. It’s also nice because they get the opportunity meet people from other countries. Like totally different areas that they would—I don’t know when they would ever get that chance again to see some of their ideas and just start connecting people together.

The goal for the Women’s Project is support women who have expressed an interest in being involved with wheelchair production. We want to work with disabled women for the most part. We found in the past that there are women that have been interested but for whatever reason they tend to drop out of the picture. And we’re interested in figuring out why and trying to create more of a network of supports. We’re working a lot with a group in Oregon, MIUSA??, who’s working with disabled women internationally, economic issues, leadership issues. So there’s a solid network that’s really growing in that area. Our pilot project was to bring women from Uganda and Kenya to what was for the most part an all men’s training in Kenya. So we did a one week before the regular training to get them up to speed on how to use tools and stuff like that. So one of the Kenyan women now has a shop in Kenya that she’s starting up and we have proposals to work with women in Uganda to start another shop. So it may not—we’re experimenting to see if it’s going to be all women or just women-directed, or just what the balance of what women need to have the support to continue their involvement.

PORTER: What is the next step here? Can you give us some idea of the future? What are your hopes and dreams for the project.

HOTCHKISS: Well, my vested interest in this all along, my personal goal, was to find ways to make chairs that really would go most places.

PORTER: Again, the founder and Technical Director of Whirlwind Wheelchair International, Ralph Hotchkiss.

HOTCHKISS: I’m still riding a chair that won’t go up a slope any steeper than one-in-six. And that’s when I lean way forward and push like crazy. And one-in-six, one foot up for six feet running, is not very steep. That’s like a steep road. But pathways typically are twice that steep. And we’re playing just today with a new design that’s a combination of ideas from Cambodia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, England, and US. Ideas, some of them going back thirty years, but that have never been, never fallen together in a practical way. Now, we hope this next model will actually climb a one-in-three slope. Might be the first one that’s good for most farming areas, most rural areas, where there are steep dirt trails to almost every farm.

PORTER: That’s kind of exciting, isn’t it?

HOTCHKISS: Oh, it will be if it works. It’ll be just another—we’ve tried many times before, similar things. We’ll see. The downside of it so far is that it doesn’t fold, but we’ll work on that later. Once we can get it working. We really do prefer chairs that fold because they’re easier to load on the roof of the bus to go up and down Central America. It’s remarkable how much travel people who are wheelchair riders in Latin America and Africa do by bus. Of course nobody can afford a car; very few people can. But buses work quite well. Much, much better than buses in this country, inter-city buses. In this country really there’s no way yet, despite what the laws say and despite what the technology is, our companies, the companies that control inter-city bus transit have chosen not to make transit available. But if you go south of the border all of a sudden it becomes very easy by comparison. Every driver, every bus has two drivers on board. And they’ll lift you on board the bus, put your wheelchair on the roof, or lift you in the back of the bus, where they’ve taken out a couple of seats for cargo anyway. And you ride chair and all. It works quite well.

PORTER: We’ve talked about making chairs available for people around the world, but a design like this, like you say, if it works—has some commercial potential, doesn’t it?

HOTCHKISS: It should. Yes. We built chairs like this years back with six wheels; two casters front and rear, and they actually would climb a one-in-three slope. Very steep. Twice as steep as I can climb on this chair and four times as steep as the standard wheelchair ramp, one-in-12 slope, one foot up and 12 feet running. So, if it works, yet it will have commercial potential. And I hope we can figure out how to get it out there.

PORTER: People think about the work that’s done here being of benefit to people in the developing world. But we’re also talking about benefits to people all over the world.

HOTCHKISS: Though, don’t dismiss the market in the Third World. It’s four times bigger than the market in the wealthy world.

PORTER: For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter in San Francisco.

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