Accidental Wheelchair Inventor Seeing His Dream
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
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 --
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 foundations 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 Naders 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 cant expect them to last, and they dont,
Hotchkiss said. When the chairs inevitably do break, parts and materials needed
for repair most likely wont 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
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
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, Whirlwinds 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
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
Mike Ervin is a writer who lives in Chicago. His blog,
Smart Ass Cripple, appears at smartasscripple. blogspot.com.