College of Science & Engineering Alumni Newsletter

Fall 1999

Whirlwind Wheelchair International

     Whirlwind Wheelchair International (WWI) is dedicated to the social integration of people with disabilities throughout the world. The primary goal of the program, founded at San Francisco State University in 1989, is to develop a global network of wheelchair inventors / designers, users and manufacturers to address the tremendous need for wheelchairs in the developing world.
     Wheelchair riders themselves play a central role in all aspects of WWI’s efforts. Through a network of local workshops around the world, WWI trains people with disabilities to build and repair wheelchairs. In this way, a worldwide network of riders / designers is continually updating, adapting and improving the design of the Whirlwind wheelchair, a lightweight, low-cost, high-performance wheelchair designed to be effective in the rugged urban and rural conditions of the developing world.
     At the same time, workshop participants learn marketable skills. By securing greater mobility and thus greater access to and participation in the social and economic life of their communities, people with disabilities can gain greater self-sufficiency and self-esteem.
     In addition, WWI’s reliance on the creative abilities of those who know the problem best has resulted in a substantive, two-way informational and technological exchange. This "trickle-up" process has produced a number of significant innovations in wheelchair design and manufacture that are also applicable to wheelchair design for underserved populations in industrialized nations.
     Since its founding WWI has helped to start wheelchair workshops in 25 developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, training over 250 mechanics that have built more than 15,000 wheelchairs.
     All over the world, people with disabilities are increasingly refusing to be defined by their traditional roles of dependence, helplessness and isolation. A modern wheelchair has the potential to bring about a social transformation: Mobility means that people with disabilities can achieve self-determination and self-reliance, that they can overcome the expectation that they have no future.
     In order to gain self-sufficiency, however, the world’s poor majority needs a wheelchair that is affordable, easy to repair locally and appropriate to local needs and conditions.
     It is these chairs Ralf Hotchkiss has been designing and building for the past thirty years – making no compromises in the effectiveness of the wheelchairs, yet finding ways to build and maintain them at a very low cost.
     San Francisco State University is honoring Professor Hotchkiss’ extraordinary achievements and contributions in this field by establishing the Ralf Hotchkiss Chair in Appropriate Technology for Disability in the University’s College of Science and Engineering.
 It is the first academic chair in the United States devoted, as Professor Hotchkiss’ work has been, to the intersection of disability, the design of appropriate technology, and engineering from a humanistic perspective.

Professor Ralf Hotchkiss
     Ralf Hotchkiss (attended SFSU in 1970’s) has been a designer, inventor, and builder of wheeled mobility devices for thirty years. Through Whirlwind Wheelchair International, he has devoted himself to teaching wheelchair riders in developing countries how to build sturdy, inexpensive and adaptable wheelchairs out of locally available materials.
     Professor Hotchkiss is the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, the Henry B. Betts Award for his work to improve the lives of people with disabilities, and the Chrysler Corporation’s Innovation in Design Award. His alma mater, Oberlin College, awarded him an honorary Doctor of Science degree in 1991. He was inducted to the San Francisco State University Alumni Hall of Fame in 1995.
     Professor Hotchkiss is a Senior Research Scientist at San Francisco State University’s School of Engineering and Technical Director of Whirlwind Wheelchair International.

The Ralf Hotchkiss Chair
     With the establishment of the Ralf Hotchkiss Chair, San Francisco State University affirms its strong commitment to the importance of research and scholarship in the field of appropriate technology for people with disabilities. The Chair emphasizes the humanistic aspects of design, and combines rehabilitation engineering and appropriate technology.
     Appropriate technology is defined as the best technology that can be had, given the limited resources available to the majority of the population in developing countries as well as the poorer populations in the industrialized nations. Rehabilitation engineering is the formalized area of study concerned with research, development and adaptation of technology for use by people with disabilities.
     The establishment of the Ralf Hotchkiss Chair will reinforce the activities of the School of Engineering at SFSU in the field of Rehabilitation Engineering. Since 1987, the School of Engineering has participated with the Department of Rehabilitation Counseling in an innovative certificate program to train interdisciplinary teams of engineers, technologists, counselors and physical and occupational therapists to provide adaptive technology for people with disabilities. The Chair will permit Professor Hotchkiss’ continued interaction with these trainees, in addition to supporting his specialized work  – mobility for persons with disabilities in developing countries.
     It is appropriate to establish this Chair at SFSU. The San Francisco Bay Area has long been a focal point in the independent living movement, and the University is strongly committed to ensuring access – in all its forms – to its students, faculty, staff and the public in general.

How your gift will be used
     Donations will be used to establish the endowment of the Ralf Hotchkiss Chair. Interest from the endowment will support the salary and benefits of the Chair’s occupant, supplement funds to increase course offerings, as needed, and provide research and travel support for the Chair’s occupant.
     Endowment funds will be invested consistent with SFSU Foundation’s investment policy for restricted funds. The San Francisco State University Foundation will serve as the trustee for the Hotchkiss Chair endowment fund. The SFSU Foundation will have the fiduciary duty to prospective donors and to the University to administer the assets consistent with the donors’ wishes and with generally accepted financial accounting standards.

Contact Us Today
     Please contact the SFSU Office of University Development at (415) 338-1042 or e-mail to learn about the many ways you can help us to establish the Ralf Hotchkiss Chair in Appropriate Technology for Disability.

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Updated by Lannie Nguyen-Tang on August 3rd, 2000