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Low tech approach gets high tech kudos

September 16, 2004

Photo of a Whirlwind Wheelchair shop in UgandaWhen Silicon Valley's High Tech Museum recently announced its recognition for "inventions and innovations in technology that benefit humanity," the SFSU Urban Institute's Whirlwind Wheelchair International (WWI) was among the 25 "laureates" to be honored. Five of these organizations or individuals will be awarded cash gifts of $50,000 each at an awards gala on Nov. 10. More than 580 nominations were considered by an international panel.

WWI is competing in the Agilent Technologies Equality Award category, which honors the use of technology to overcome human rights violations and improve the local democratic process in Third-World and developing countries. Founded in 1989 by engineer and wheelchair designer Ralf Hotchkiss and SFSU engineering Professor Peter Pfaelzer, now retired, WWI grew out of Hotchkiss' work traveling the globe directing the building of suitable wheelchairs for developing countries from locally available materials.

Hotchkiss, who has used wheelchairs since being paralyzed in a motorcycle accident when he was 18, began his quest for more and better wheelchairs in 1980 in Nicaragua, where he had volunteered to lead a group of Nicaraguans in the repair of donated chairs. "The donated chairs were not in very good shape," the MacArthur Genius Award recipient recalls, "and one of the Nicaraguans said, 'We could probably build better chairs from scratch.'"

Since that day, Hotchkiss and other volunteers have set up small shops that build wheelchairs and provide jobs for those who build them in other parts of Latin America as well as in Africa, Asia, India and Afghanistan. All chairs are built by locals from locally available materials and designed to accommodate needs specific to the region. "Conservatively speaking," Hotchkiss says, "WWI currently produces five to six thousand chairs annually." Still, a lot more are needed, he says.

Since WWI's founding, SFSU engineering, industrial design and physical therapy students have worked with Hotchkiss in a class on campus that continues to develop better chairs, including a new lightweight model with a longer wheel base that offers more stability and maneuverability. Some of these students have gone on to travel the world like their teacher, building better chairs and lives.

Of this latest recognition Hotchkiss says, "It's good to know that the Museum realizes how high tech low tech can be."

-- Denize Springer


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Last modified September 16, 2004 by University Communications