Ralf Hotchkiss is an engineering professor here at SF State and is founder and chief engineer of Whirlwind Wheelchair International, an organization based on campus that has distributed his innovative wheelchairs to more than 50,000 people in 40 different countries.
Whirlwind seeks to create a global network of wheelchair inventors, designers, users and manufacturers to address the need for wheelchairs in the developing world. Hotchkiss trains local workers from developing countries and directs the building of suitable wheelchairs from locally available materials.
Ralph Nader, former presidential candidate, attests to Hotchkiss’s active pursuit in solving wheelchair engineering obstacles in order to provide mobility for those who don’t have it.
“His energy is irrepressible; all obstacles and difficult circumstances, regarding his life’s mission, are only problems to be methodically analyzed and dealt with solutions,” Nader says. “Whirlwind Wheelchair International brims with new ideas. Hotchkiss is driven by a technical and moral imagination […] to break what he calls ‘the imprisonment of immobility.’”
Hotchkiss was already teaching at SF State when in 1989, he was awarded the MacArthur “genius” award. It’s a prestigious fellowship given to individuals “across all ages and fields who show exceptional merit and promise of continued creative work”, according to the foundation’s Web site.
Much of Whirlwind’s efforts focus in on people with disabilities in developing countries.
In this first part of my series chronicling the life of this innovative man, we focus on the tragic accident and misfortune he encountered 45 years ago, that gave birth to wondrous organization.