San Francisco News

SF lab develops unique wheelchairs

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Twenty million people around the world need wheelchairs, but 98 percent don't have them. Hundreds of Iraqis who have lost their mobility have recently regained it through a unique wheelchair developed in the Bay Area. They're tailored made for the rough conditions in developing countries. ABC7 visited the engineers at San Francisco State University who are spreading freedom of mobility around the world.

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Students and teachers at a lab at San Francisco State University are transforming lives in the developing world one spoke at a time.

"People need a chair that can go over unpaved roads, considerable distance, everyday to get to school and get to work, to raise a family to do what they have to do," said Professor Ralf Hotchkiss.

Hotchkiss became paralyzed in a motorcycle accident more than three decades ago. A chair he created for himself evolved into Whirlwind -- a line of wheels tough enough for developing countries. Hotchkiss and his team of engineers put each design through the roughest of conditions -- in the lab, and on the rocky shores around San Francisco Bay. They have to, to ensure these chairs will travel in countries like Mexico, Vietnam, Nicaragua, South Africa and Iraq.

"We are working with people in each of those countries to design chairs just as strong as possible," said Hotchkiss.

Strong is key because these chairs are used overseas on unpaved roads, mud and sand, places with no bus lifts, sidewalks or handicap ramps. In addition, Hotchkiss knows the wheelchairs need to be affordable. They use simple, locally-produced parts made stronger through clever engineering. Such as a long-wheel base and wide, solid-rubber front caster wheels and mountain biking rear tires.

"You can take this chair to any good blacksmith, any good bicycle repair person -- almost anywhere in the world, even in a small village and they can remake any part of the chair. It's simple enough," said Hotchkiss.

The San Francisco State team has now taught small shops in 45 countries how to produce different models of Whirlwind chairs. Recently, hundreds of the latest model, the 'Rough Rider,' was given out to Iraqis for free thanks to money raised by Hotchkiss's foundation Whirlwind Wheelchair International.

"We hope that enough people will become builders of this chair that it will be available in almost every developing country," said Hotchkiss.

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