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To Climb Every Mountain
Stacey Colino
May 04, 1992
These wheelchairs are designed to put disabled athletes on trails once reserved for off-road vehicles
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May 04, 1992

To Climb Every Mountain

These wheelchairs are designed to put disabled athletes on trails once reserved for off-road vehicles

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One of the chair's biggest design challenges was the seat. Pressure sores from poorly designed seats are the leading cause of death among people with spinal-cord injuries in the Third World. So Hotchkiss adapted part of a Swedish design, using custom-molded corrugated cardboard that's held in place with strings that can be adjusted for each rider. The seat's position is also lower than most wheelchairs', and it is reclined slightly to avoid the most common injury to wheelchair riders—tipping forward out of the chair. "This makes the chair more stable at high speeds." says Hotchkiss, who rides it himself—for everyday use and to play basketball or to race with his six-year-old son, Desmond, who rides his bike.

Hotchkiss has been building wheelchairs as long as he has been riding them—since 1966, when he was paralyzed from the chest down in a motorcycle accident. Before that, he had been an avid biker and had built a six-person bicycle, like a stretched tandem, and a 45-speed racer that he rode in a 1964 regional race in northern Illinois.

A graduate of Oberlin College with a degree in physics, Hotchkiss spent nine years working on product safety and engineering standards at the Center for Auto Safety, which was founded by Ralph Nader, and the Center for Concerned Engineering in Washington, D.C. In his spare time he built specialized wheelchairs from scratch, including a stair climber and a spring counterbalance—or stand-up, sit-down—chair. Then in 1979 he moved to the Bay Area and began teaching rehabilitation engineering at San Francisco State University.

Each year, engineers from around the world come to his workshop at SFSU's Wheeled Mobility Center, where he shows them how to construct durable, comfortable and inexpensive chairs using simple—and available—parts; he also travels extensively, conducting workshops. The chairs are now being made in 20 countries, including Brazil, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Mexico and Zimbabwe. As Hotchkiss continues his quest for the ideal chair, he borrows techniques and ideas from other engineers along the way. "The idea of a lone inventor is a fantasy." he says. "People who don't work with other inventors today are just further limiting the technology." Hotchkiss first became involved in Third World wheelchair design while vacationing in Nicaragua in 1980. There he met Omar Talavera, a mechanic who, a year earlier, had been paralyzed from a gunshot wound during Nicaragua's civil war. "I was riding a homemade chair, and he took a good look at it and said, "We can do chairs like that.' " Hotchkiss recalls. "So I helped them get started." Talavera, 30, who is now a senior at the University of California-Berkeley majoring in mechanical engineering, has been working with Hotchkiss ever since.

"Wheelchair sports upset the stereotypes and do more educating than any other aspect of the disability rights movement," Hotchkiss says. "They help people to accept disabled people as something other than objects of pity."

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