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Public Culture 12.1 (2000) 43-50

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On Wheels * - [PDF]

Ralf D. Hotchkiss

Four out of five people with disabilities live in less-developed countries, and an estimated 20 million of them need wheelchairs right now.

Ralf D. Hotchkiss is technical director of Whirlwind Wheelchair International (WWI), which coordinates and assists a network of independent wheelchair builders around the world. Begun in 1980 by Appropriate Technology International and now housed at San Francisco State University, WWI promotes the local production in less-developed countries of affordable and reliable chairs by wheelchair riders themselves.

Hotchkiss, who was named a MacArthur Fellow for his work, is an active spokesperson for WWI; the following text has been adapted with permission from 1998 Medical and Health Annual © 1997 by Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. See also his essay in The Sciences (July/August 1993). [End Page 43]


Charity's Junkyard

A typical Western hospital chair is designed for gentle use on smooth floors. Its short-lived components must be regularly replaced with expensive parts from a factory. If a hospital chair is imported into a Third World community, it can quickly become useless because replacement parts are not available. Dumped chairs can be seen rusting by the hundreds behind hospitals. [End Page 44] [Begin Page 46]


Global Networks for Appropriate Technology

People with disabilities have not been sitting idly by waiting for better wheelchairs to come their way. For more than two decades, active groups of disabled people have been searching for "appropriate technology"--a concept for which these grass-roots engineers have developed their own rigorous definition: the very best methods that can be employed, using available materials at an affordable cost. They have improved on the design of imported wheelchairs and are manufacturing their own new models at a much lower cost. The formation and cooperation of an international network of builders has been vital to these successes.

In the 1970s the first wheelchair-building collective comprising a large group of people with disabilities began work in the Philippines. Known as Tahanan Walang Hagdanan [House with no steps], the group designed chairs that were a vast improvement over the imported chairs upon which Filipinos with disabilities had previously depended. Since then, a network of wheelchair builders in developing countries has connected similar operations in Nicaragua, Mexico, Kenya, Zimbabwe, India, Thailand, Fiji, Cambodia, Siberia, Vietnam, and elsewhere. [End Page 46] [Begin Page 48]


Women Building Wheelchairs

In January 1997 in Limuru, Kenya, Whirlwind Women, a group started by three enterprising women affiliated with WWI, conducted an intensive one-week course to teach six women from Kenya and Uganda basic metalworking techniques. During their initial training, the women built the side frame of a durable, lightweight, folding Whirlwind wheelchair, the state of the art in chairs designed with appropriate technology. After that, using their newly acquired skills--of measuring, welding, grinding, drilling, and bending thin-walled tubing--the women went on to construct entire Whirlwinds from raw hardware. Whirlwind Women are today collaborating with the International Network of Women with Disabilities to involve more women in every aspect of wheelchair design, production, and marketing. [End Page 48] [Begin Page 50]


The Most Legitimate Experts

When equipped with workable tools and resources, disabled people often find highly inventive solutions to their own problems. Some of these people have formed teams with rehabilitation professionals and expert technicians. The result has been a profusion of new devices. Some have been highly effective, some total failures, but each one has underscored the value of working with the most legitimate experts on the needs of people who have mobility impairments and live in difficult environments--the disabled people themselves.

Already some of the better Third World designs have begun to trickle up to the Western marketplace.

* Photographs © Ralf D. Hotchkiss. Encyclopædia Britannica text © 1997 by Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.



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pp. 43-50
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Archived 2004
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