Engineering Instructor and Activist Seeks, Inspires Wheelchair Innovation - Higher Education
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Engineering Instructor and Activist Seeks, Inspires Wheelchair Innovation

by Lydia Lum

A wheelchair design and construction course at San Francisco State University engaged David Marigmen so much that he currently works on chairs benefiting disabled children in developing nations.

It’s the kind of ambition and passion that course instructor Ralf Hotchkiss tries cultivating each time he introduces ambulatory students like Marigmen to the mobility challenges faced by wheelchair users of all ages in the developing world.

“This (work) can’t be done by just one person, and it’s helpful having fresh eyes and new ideas come in,” says Hotchkiss, a wheelchair user himself since age 18. In addition to the academic course, he has devoted more than 30 years to SFSU’s non-profit Whirlwind Wheelchair International. As Whirlwind’s co-founder and chief engineer, he focuses on producing and distributing durable yet inexpensive chairs so people with significant disabilities in countries such as Rwanda, Indonesia and Haiti can more easily go to work and school.

One out of 300 people in the developing world, according to the World Health Organization, needs an all-terrain chair that can be used without another person constantly pushing it. Such chairs will likely cross over tree roots or broken pavement, travel muddy village paths and navigate urban street curbs lacking ramps.

Hotchkiss and others continually tinker with new designs and make improvements to older ones. A scaled-down wheelchair for children, for instance, has long been offered by Whirlwind, but a more adjustable version is now under development that might accommodate youths ages 4 to 10, reducing the need and expense of frequent replacement. Marigmen, a senior majoring in industrial design, is researching and assessing different types of footrests for the new chair.

“I know it’s just a footrest, but it has to provide enough support for good posture,” says Marigmen, who knew little about wheelchairs before meeting Hotchkiss. “It also has to be safe so a kid’s leg doesn’t get caught, and I have to think about children who have one leg longer than the other. There’s much more at stake than if I was just making a car run faster.” 

When he took Hotchkiss’s design and construction course last year, he learned firsthand how crucial a sturdy wheelchair is. Students were required to spend time each week riding prototypes around campus, and Marigmen lost count of how many times he found himself rolling backward when trying to go uphill. “And it was impossible to hold an umbrella in the rain and control the chair at once,” Marigmen recalls.

The academic course calls for students to manually build, as a group, one or two Whirlwind chairs under Hotchkiss’ direction during the semester, and workshop conditions mirror as much as possible those of blacksmith shops in developing countries.                  

A 1989 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant winner for his accomplishments in rehabilitation engineering, Hotchkiss’ life’s work began after a motorcycle accident when his wheelchair broke less than a block away from the hospital. He built his own models, believing they might be sturdier. He also became an engineer working in the aerospace industry.

In 1979, he accompanied U.S. disability activists to Nicaragua to assist disabled people there with wheelchair repair and health concerns. Before long, Hotchkiss went to Mexico, then the Philippines, not only helping wheelchair users but also importing their best practices in chair construction and repairs to share with others. Out of this emerged what is known as Whirlwind technology as well as a line of wheelchairs.

Hotchkiss created a network of manufacturers in developing nations that have produced more than 50,000 Whirlwind chairs for people in more than 40 countries. Whirlwind now has 15 staff employees — some of them Hotchkiss’ former students — in areas such as product development, marketing and distribution. Whirlwind is housed in SFSU’s Institute for Civic and Community Engagement. The signature Whirlwind chair is the RoughRider, made from steel tubing, mountain-bicycle tires and other parts that can be repaired and replaced even in under-resourced communities in foreign countries. The RoughRider is often what students are assigned to build in Hotchkiss’ academic course.

More information about Whirlwind Wheelchair International is at www.whirlwindwheelchair.org.

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