#5. The Whirlwind Wheelchair

5. Whirlwind Wheelchair

Writing this post has taken a while.  For the #5 slot I’ve wanted to write about something extraordinary.  I’ve spent hours sifting through all kinds of tools, implements, systems, etc. looking for the most innovative design adaptations for the developing world.  I didn’t want to cover something as high profile as the XO or Hippo Roller, such as the PlayPump, which one might already know about.  I also didn’t want to write about something that didn’t show significant environmental considerations in design such as the LifeStraw.

After weeks of stumbling around the internet, I came upon the Whirlwind Wheelchair, a truly brilliant project.

Those who send wheelchairs to developing countries have the best of intentions.  They want to help those unable to live independently have the gift of mobility to get out into their communities and lead productive and rewarding lives.  The problem is that most of the time that takes the form of shipping 97 year-old grandma’s hospital-style folding wheelchair to the mountains of Peru.  There the wheelchairs sit and rust,  unhelpful to anyone.

Why aren’t these well-intended donations useful?  1. The wheelchairs are expensive to obtain and repair.  A wheelchair that soon breaks and can’t be repaired doesn’t provide a long-term benefit. A wheelchair that is out of financial reach is, too, useless.  2. The wheelchairs don’t take the user into consideration.  Cobblestones, narrow doorways and sidewalks, steep curbs, mud, and unpaved roads are just a few of the conditions your everyday folding vinyl wheelchair just isn’t made to handle.  And don’t forget about size– a child amputee can’t move about easily in a massively over-sized chair, neither can someone of generally small posture.

Now for the brilliance of the Whirlwind.

The Whirlwind Wheelchair project is the brainchild of San Francisco State University engineering professor Peter Pfaelzer and Ralf Hotchkiss, a paraplegic engineer and wheelchair designer.  The ultimate goal is to make wheelchairs accessible to each person in the developing world that needs one.  Not only that, but to have those chairs be those that best enable that person to live independently and integrate into their society.

The newest iteration of the Whirlwind Rough Rider. photo: whirlwind.org

Each element of Whirlwind’s project is geared with these goals in mind.  First, the Whirlwind wheelchairs are designed to withstand the rigors of the developing world with strength-tested frames, rugged and easily replaceable mountain bike wheels and tires, and wide rubber front casters designed to last two to five years.

Second, Whirlwind’s designs are intended to make the wheelchairs affordable to acquire and repair, while helping to set-up entrepreneurs to serve as wheelchair dealers and mechanics for their communities.  Manufacturing takes place in developing world factories in places such as India and South Africa.  The most readily available and appropriate materials are used.  Local people are trained to assemble and repair the chairs.  Designs are open source and protected with a Creative Commons license, keeping the design itself financially in-reach.  Overall, this means the Whirlwind is not only a project providing wheelchairs to those who need them, but a means of building entrepreneurship, job-skills, and economic opportunity for the community.

Third, the Whirlwind has a refreshing approach to gathering momentum for the movement– education.  Each semester SFSU’s Extended Learning College offers a course called “Wheelchair Design and Construction” taught by Hotchkiss  which teaches students how to build a chair from the ground up.  With that effort dozens of students are trained to think not only about wheelchairs, but also usability, and design.  It puts people in the mindset to take design beyond aesthetics and function and into socially beneficial directions and prepares them with at least one skill set they can use to make a difference.  This is a class I personally would love to take.

To see an excellent short video explaining the technology and design advantages over grandma’s chair, click here.

Whirlwind has international partners and its technology has been taken to over 45 countries.

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4 thoughts on “#5. The Whirlwind Wheelchair

  1. Jenica,
    Thanks for your post. Loss of mobility has a cascading negative effect when family members are forced to skip work or school to care for their loved one who has a tough time just getting around in the home – much less getting out for a normal life. I just finished business school and jumped at the opportunity to work with Whirlwind. Thanks for mentioning us along with those other amazing products – XO, hippo, etc. Creating and marketing products that make the world a better place and expand people’s opportunities is kind of a quest for me.
    Whirlwind was actually on PBS Frontline/World last week. Be sure to check out the show-
    http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/vietnam804/

    • Keoke,
      Thanks for your comment! I’m glad to provide whatever publicity I can to helpful and innovative projects that can change lives, and especially glad you found this post.

      I think that so many of us don’t understand the daily struggles others face, both in our own nation and abroad. It’s a special gift to be awoken to them, and especially to work on finding ways to improve everyone’s quality of life.

      Congratulations on your work. I hope there are many great things for you and Whirlwind ahead.

      -Jenica

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