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Campus Beat

Wheels of Change

Photo of Yotsuki Lee working on a Whirlwind wheelchair bound for HaitiYotsuki Lee works on a Whirlwind wheelchair bound for Haiti.

AN ESTIMATED 25 MILLION PEOPLE in the developing world need a wheelchair right now, says Ralf Hotchkiss, co-founder of SF State's Whirlwind Wheelchair International. "And not only do they need a wheelchair, but they need the best of wheelchairs, because they have the worst of terrain, and they go the longest distances -- no cars, no buses with lifts."

Nowhere is this more evident than Haiti, where January's 7.0-magnitude earthquake has left thousands of survivors with lasting mobility impairments. In the days following the disaster, Executive Director Marc Krizack vowed that Whirlwind, which designs and builds rugged, low-cost wheelchairs, would help as many Haitians as possible. Now, thanks to the efforts at Whirlwind's international network of factories along with the donations of concerned citizens, 1,000 RoughRider wheelchairs are on their way to Haiti.

Whirlwind's factories in Vietnam and Mexico pro­duced rush orders of these rugged models, designed by Hotchkiss, a MacArthur "Genius" award recipient, and his colleague Chris Howard. The RoughRider has moun­tain bike tires in the back and front wheels with a wide, flexible tread that glides over soft or uneven ground. Toe protectors shield bare feet from rocks and other debris.

Whirlwind wheelchairs are manufactured in more than 20 developing countries on nearly every continent -- all by the hands of residents who use locally available parts and materials. Its commitment to solving a global challenge drew accolades at the April 2010 Clinton Global Initiative University meeting, where Whirlwind officials announced a four-year plan to create wheelchairs for children and to establish new factories, many of which provide employment for people with disabilities.

View a recent PBS News Hour segment at www.whirlwindwheelchair.org


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