A wheelchair is a fantastic machine until it breaks down and becomes an utterly useless piece of junk. From the mid 1970s my approach to keeping my own chair rolling was to stock double and triple supplies of components, and have office and home numbers for wheelchair distributors who could drop-ship parts anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. This was psychologically comforting but neither cheap nor efficient.
It was fellow wheelchair user Ralf Hotchkiss who taught me the importance of design for local resources, the value of low-tech, and the meaning of sustainability. Ralf and I became paralyzed at about the same time, and while my solution to keeping my chair working was to yank the supply chain, his strategy was to tear his chair apart and find a way to fix it himself. He began by replacing all the specialized factory-produced parts on his first chairs with simpler, easy-to-obtain components. Ralf not only kept his chair rolling in more rugged locations, he ended up changing the world for all wheelchair users through Whirlwind Wheelchair International, a program at San Francisco State University.
I first encountered Ralf’s Whirlwind in the middle of the Arab-Israeli conflict. I was assigned to cover a big global story, and as is often the case, I ended up finding a deeper and, in some respects, more important local story.
More than twenty years ago, I was on a plane headed to Israel to be the Middle East correspondent for NPR. I was vaguely nervous about my new assignment in the middle of violence and unrest, but it was my paranoia and panic at being stopped cold in the middle of some gigantic news story by a wheelchair malfunction that was all-consuming. At Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport I presented a pair of large crates full of wheelchair parts. As far as wheelchair maintenance was concerned, I was taking no chances.
Neither was the customs agent, who—after he assured himself that none of my metal rods and tubes could be assembled into weapons—wanted to know more about what I was carrying. “Are you hoping to open a hardware kiosk with all this stuff?” he asked suspiciously.
“I need the spare parts for my wheelchair,” I replied. It looked as though my elaborate preparations might complicate passage through Israel’s notoriously finicky airport customs.
“What means this ‘spare parts’?” the Israeli agent barked. “You are thinking we have here no nuts and bolts or wrenches and tires with balloons [his word for inner tubes]?” He was apparently used to demanding explanations from American tourists about their outlandish luggage and wielded his broken English proudly, like a truncheon. “This is not some wilderness like Alaska,” the agent said as he waved me through. “This is Israel. We have here tools. We also have here wheelchairs.”
I left the airport sheepishly with my many pounds of parts and an odd epiphany about a human-machine relationship I thought was settled.
Some months later while in Gaza, I came to know some disabled Palestinians who had been given wheelchairs by charitable foundations throughout the Arab world. They were Western-made and al-most without exception falling apart. Their specialized components were not compatible with local parts, and their tires were not designed for the rugged urban terrain of Gaza, where you were as likely to run over shrapnel as broken glass. Half of the chairs had been cannibalized for parts, and some of the wheel hardware was being held together with clumsy C-clamps or flimsy gaffer’s tape.
I used virtually all of my own spare parts to restore these junky factory chairs to functionality. I even managed to cobble together a usable wheelchair close to the reliability of my own out of my personal “hardware kiosk,” but I could see the progress was only temporary. As grateful as my new Palestinian friends were for the repair job, we all understood that it was only a matter of time before they would be back to C-clamps and gaffer’s tape.
I contacted Ralf to see how I might find a reliable supply of Western parts to keep my Gaza friends rolling. He laughed and told me about his own trips to Nicaragua, where he encountered Sandinista wheelchair users with similar problems and no spare parts. Ralf said the only solution was to build a wheelchair from the ground up with readily available local materials. I told him I had no time to start manufacturing wheelchairs. “And you do have time to spend hours on the phone ordering parts and waiting for them to be delivered to the Middle East,” he replied, sighing one of his Yoda sighs and promising to send me a book he was working on.
The 1985 book, Independence Through Mobility: Guide to the Manufacture of the ATI-Hotchkiss Wheelchair, arrived a few weeks later. It outlined Ralf’s philosophy for a globally affordable, locally maintainable wheelchair design. The book was a build-it-yourself guide with all of Ralf’s folksy lessons learned from the tough-rolling streets of Central America. It contained one idea about local technology that I’ve never forgotten. Virtually anywhere in the world it is possible to do two things: 1) bend soft metal tubing, and 2) repair and restore rubber tires and inner tubes. Designs based on this global truth, Ralf maintained, could be successful mobility solutions for people who have never had reliable access to wheelchairs.
Today, Whirlwind has evangelized its message of local technology to workshops and manufacturing facilities all over the world. The collaborative strategy of making sure not only technology but design is local in each workshop location has produced innovations like the Monofork, a no-weld fork for mounting front-caster axles, which became vital when welding materials were unavailable during the U.S. blockade of Nicaragua. The Monofork was developed by Omar Talavera, a disabled Nicaraguan engineer who now works for NASA. There’s also the Zimbabwe Wheel, a concept discovered in Africa and developed by Whirlwind in 1995 to deal with a shortage of metal parts for small-diameter casters. The single wheel is made entirely of cast rubber, has no moving parts other than an axle, requires little maintenance, and can be replaced in a simple swap-out operation.
Since the 1980s at least 20,000 chairs have been produced using Whirlwind designs. The group has a manufacturing plant in Vietnam capable of producing 500 chairs per month. “By the end of the decade we expect to produce double the number of wheelchairs we’ve made in more than twenty years of building them for the developing world,” says Marc Krizack, executive director of Whirlwind.
In the time since Ralf began tinkering with his own chair, Whirlwind has learned to make adjustments to its designs based on details other manufacturers would never even consider. For a long time he insisted on building wheels based on a particular bearing. “It was the bearing found in a Ford alternator, and we picked it because there were always junked Fords and busted-out alternators wherever we went,” Krizack explains. “Then something changed, and it was harder to find Fords anymore, so we had to make the design more flexible to accommodate the different salvage bearings we might find.”
“The developing world sometimes looks like the OPEC of salvaged mechanical parts,” says Krizack, who claims that Whirlwind has learned to take full advantage of its quirky design approach. “There is a lot of potential if you are willing to rely on what gets thrown away.”
Whirlwind is challenged by lower-cost competitors but claims that its $150 chair can last up to ten times longer than flimsy mass-produced chairs. Meanwhile, Ralf is still traveling. Late last year he was happily stranded for a time in Kenya as the country dissolved into chaos after a troubled election. His latest project is using wheelchair manufacture as a cooperative venture to get people to bury the hatchet in conflict zones around the world. His idea is to use the ready expertise of the war-wounded to heal the social wounds of war.
I still rely on FedEx and redundant parts for my wheelchair. Now every time I see Ralf he shakes his head, shows off his own homemade design, points to my factory chair, and says, “Someday, John, you’ll give me a call. I think even you are trainable for one of our workshops.” Coming from Ralf Hotchkiss, that’s high praise indeed.
Find out more facts about this story on the Reference Page: March 2008