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Accidental’ Wheelchair Inventor Seeing His Dream Gain Traction

By Mike Ervin

Two events in 1966 changed Ralf Hotchkiss' life forever. The first occurred near his hometown of Rockford, Ill., when the then 18-year-old sustained a spinal cord injury.

“My first cousin and I borrowed a pair of motorcycles from friends," Hotchkiss said. "As we rounded a gentle curve at about 50 miles per hour, I (hit) a patch of loose sand that had blown into the pavement, and (I) slid off the road. The bike headed down into a concrete culvert, while I flew over the concrete and tumbled in the grass.” Hotchkiss broke his back at the fourth thoracic vertebra. “The poor bike was much worse off," he said. "It broke in two and was beyond repair.”

The second life-changing event occurred when Hotchkiss first went outside the rehab hospital in an E&J;Premier wheelchair. He struggled, much to his surprise, to maintain his forward motion on the slanted sidewalk and not roll off the curb and into the street. He hit a crack in the pavement.

“The chair tipped forward, stopped from tipping only by the footrests hitting the ground. By sheer luck, I did not fall out. But the chair would not move forward. Looking down, I saw that the front fork had bent back until the caster wheel jammed into the side frame. I returned to the hospital by traveling in the only direction the chair would go -- backward.”

Hotchkiss traveled less than a block, but he developed a personal and professional obsession with designing a rugged but maneuverable wheelchair for use on rough terrain. Today, about 50,000 of his RoughRider model wheelchairs are in use around the world, mostly in developing countries. The chairs are manufactured and distributed by the non-profit, Whirlwind Wheelchair International. Hotchkiss is WWI's director and chief engineer.

Hotchkiss is also a past recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. The so-called "genius grants" are awarded annually to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction,” according to the foundation’s website. One morning in 1989, the phone rang at his home in Oakland at 7 a.m. “It was an enthusiastic guy exclaiming that I had won this huge award," Hotchkiss said. "I was suspicious.” He thought a friend was playing a joke.

At the time, his nameless project working with wheelchair riders in developing countries to design and build durable wheelchairs was fledgling and obscure. In the 1970s, he worked for Ralph Nader’s Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C., but his passionate avocation was designing wheelchairs. In 1981, he went to Nicaragua as part of a delegation from the original

Nicaragua as part of a delegation from the original Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, Calif. There he met five wheelchair riders who took turns using a single wheelchair. They repaired and refurbished it themselves, using available materials and tools.
Hotchkiss was impressed by their ingenuity and resourcefulness. “It was clear that they knew more about chair design than the U.S. industry.” Hotchkiss learned in Nicaragua that the charity model was not the answer for bringing reliable mobility to wheelchair riders in Central American countries. Delivering used or even new chairs from the U.S. was shortsighted.” If you run it over cobblestone and gravel, you can’t expect them to last, and they don’t,” Hotchkiss said. When the chairs inevitably do break, parts and materials needed for repair most likely won’t be available.

So Hotchkiss helped some disabled Nicaraguans set up shop designing, building and repairing wheelchairs locally. By the end of the decade, Hotchkiss helped start similar shops in about a dozen countries. Hotchkiss’ own wheelchairs have been made of a collection of the best parts designed in these shops.

To this day, he has no idea how his ragtag project caught the eyes of the powers that be at MacArthur. “It was an outrageous stroke of good luck! All the work so far had been very low-key. We were just a group of disabled folks in Nicaragua, the San Francisco Bay Area and a few backward countries who had this fantasy that they could build their own wheelchairs.”

Ralf Hodgekiss

The $270,000 award came in checks spread over five years. “I had the choice of paying substantial income tax on all of it, or spending it on my wheelchair project," Hotchkiss said. "That choice was easy.”

The influx of money and publicity was a major turning point. That same year, Hotchkiss founded the Wheeled Mobility Center at San Francisco State University, which changed its name to Whirlwind Wheelchair International in 1997. Hotchkiss is the principal instructor in the Whirlwind wheelchair design class

In the 21st century, Whirlwind’s business model changed. Hotchkiss said that organizations such as the Wheelchair Foundation, which employed the charity model, were distributing hundreds of thousands of chairs around the world. This created a far greater demand for chairs among potential users and an equally heightened awareness of the need to distribute chairs among funders. This also meant an increasing void when chairs broke and were not repairable. In order to keep up, Whirlwind had to produce and distribute the RoughRider on a larger scale.

Today, RoughRiders are produced in factories in South Africa, Turkey, Indonesia, Mexico and Vietnam. They are shipped in lots of 300 or more. The purchase price of $799 per chair is usually paid by non-profit organizations that distribute them to users for free. But RoughRiders are designed and built to be universally repairable. For example, the frames are made of steel rather than less-available metals, allowing them to be serviced by any bicycle repair shop. “Most countries have bicycles,” Hotchkiss said.

With all the RoughRiders in use today, Hotchkiss said, “I feel that we are finally getting traction,”

For Hotchkiss, the primary lesson learned, as it is with the independent living movement, is that people with disabilities are their own best experts when it comes to meeting their own needs. Hotchkiss thinks his more than 40 years of riding wheelchairs is his chief qualification for doing what he does. “I certainly have learned more from that than from going to school.”

Mike Ervin is a writer who lives in Chicago. His blog, Smart Ass Cripple, appears at smartasscripple.

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