Monday, November 30, 2009

Ralf Hotchkiss' RoughRider Wheelchair

The RoughRider Wheelchair is a redesign of the traditional wheelchair, targeted specifically for use in areas of rugged terrain and poor infrastructure as is common in developing nations. In Third-World countries, wheelchairs are very hard to obtain; in fact, only one percent of the twenty million people in need own a wheelchair. The one percent who do most likely have second-hand hospital wheelchairs which are meant only for indoor use. These break easily outdoors and are usually very difficult and expensive to repair.

Ralf Hotchkiss, who began redesigning wheelchairs after he became disabled in a motorcycle accident in college, became aware of the need for a wheelchair better-suited for the rugged terrain of many third world countries. He co-founded Whirlwind Wheelch
air International with Peter Pfaelzer, a fellow engineering design professor in San Francisco. Their goal was to design sturdy wheelchairs that could be easily built and repaired in developing countries from locally available materials. For example, the chair's frame is made from thin-walled steel tubing, which is available almost anywhere. The back wheels are bicycle tires, and the front wheels are Hotchkiss’ own design of flexible rubber, which can be molded in tire retread shops. The RoughRider is designed to be as cheap as possible without compromising quality, making the chair about $150-$175.

designing the RoughRider, Hotchkiss ran into "special challenges" because the bodies and abilities of the people who need the equipment vary, therefore the Rough Rider is designed to be adaptable. The width is adjustable but meant to be much narrower than the hospital model, allowing the rider to reach directly downwards to grasp the hand rims, rather than over an armrest, and so be able to push more strongly. It is also designed to be maneuverable on rough terrain and is therefore 10 pounds lighter than the traditional model. It has a longer wheel base to prevent tipping forward, which is the biggest hazard to wheelchair riders, and has wide, flexible front wheels so as to not get caught in cracks in the road.

So far, Whirlwind Wheelchair has established 50 shops in 35 countries, where they provide on-site training in wheelchair assembly, production, and fitting. They not give away many of the chairs, but their shops provide jobs for the very people they are supplying. In addition, the RoughRider Wheelchair is not patented, therefore there is no cost for its design, and it is constantly being adapted and changed according to users' needs.

Wheels of Change (Video)


  1. Thanks for the article. I've been working with Ralf at Whirlwind now for only a few months. Let me tell you, it is a lot of fun. There are many people who are excited about the work Ralf has done. The media coverage really helps us get the word out.

    Right now Ralf and the crew are off in the Republic of Georgia setting up a new shop which is both managed and staffed by people with disabilities. There's a huge need there in Georgia for wheelchairs that offer access in rough environments.

    That shop is just one of three that we'll open in 2010. We also have several larger scale shops like the Vietnam factory in the Wheels of Change video. These larger shops allow us to provide thousands of very high quality chairs to NGOs and charities who want to deliver chairs in places where there is not adequate local manufacturing. In all, we have over 50,000 people riding Whirlwind technology and that number is increasing steadily.

    Thanks again for the article,

    keoke at

  2. Ok a new challenge is the terrain in Haiti. This is a place where that small from wheel just isn't moving. I am placing paras out in the community but for now they are housebound. Why not put bigger air filled tires on the front too????? HELP Judy Coster RN