SF State News {University Communications}

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Whirlwind Wheelchair awarded $4.8 m for research

October 13, 2009 -- As simple as a cane or as high-tech as voice recognition software, assistive technology solutions can transform the lives of people with disabilities, but these products aren't reaching millions of people in poor countries. Only five percent of disabled people in developing nations have the assistive devices they need. SF State's Whirlwind Wheelchair program has been awarded a $4.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to develop a blueprint that will guide organizations that design, manufacture and distribute technology products in the Third World and American Indian tribal lands in the U.S.

Photo of a man in Vietnam using a RoughRider wheelchair designed by Whirlwind Wheelchair

A man in Vietnam using a RoughRider wheelchair designed by Whirlwind Wheelchair.

In operation for more than 20 years at SF State, Whirlwind Wheelchair designs and builds rugged, low-cost wheelchairs that are useful for people's daily lives and appropriate for the cultural context in poor countries.

Beginning this fall, Whirlwind will use its expertise and network of international partners to conduct a five-year study that will document how devices for people with disabilities currently move from the factory floor to the user's home. The grant expands Whirlwind's focus to include other assistive technologies besides wheelchairs -- prosthetics and hearing aids for example -- and will help Whirlwind researchers to investigate why so few people with disabilities in poor countries have the devices that they need and what needs to be done differently.

"The ultimate goal is that people across the world will have better access to the assistive technology they need in order to live independent lives" said Marc Krizack, executive director at Whirlwind Wheelchair.
Teams of engineers and researchers will be dispatched to Tanzania, South Africa, Vietnam, Cambodia and Colombia as well as to American Indian tribal lands in the U.S., where many tribes have limited access to assistive technology.

Results from the study's surveys, interviews and focus groups will create a best practices guide for businesses, government agencies and non-profits involved in providing assistive technology and useful information for people with disabilities. 

"Many people living in remote villages don't even know what products are available let alone how they can acquire them," Krizack said.

Applying business practices to the disability sector, Whirlwind will examine communication methods that have already worked well in poor, remote regions. Whirlwind will establish demonstration projects in three countries that will yield case studies and best practices for reaching disabled clients in various settings.

"This grant is a tremendous honor recognizing 20 years of Whirlwind's work serving disabled people across the world," said Gerald Eisman, director of the Institute for Civic and Community Engagement, which houses Whirlwind Wheelchair at SF State. "This research is an example of how knowledge-generation and public service go hand in hand at this University."

The study is funded by the Department of Education's National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR).

For volunteer opportunities and other ways to support the work of Whirlwind Wheelchair International, visit: http://www.whirlwindwheelchair.org/

-- Elaine Bible


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