About Us

About Us 2018-01-20T21:42:49+00:00

Whirlwind co-founder Ralf Hotchkiss’s work in developing countries began in 1979 with a visit to Nicaragua. Whirlwind grew out of the next decade of Hotchkiss’s work, for which he was given a MacArthur Award. Whirlwind was founded in 1989 by Hotchkiss and San Francisco State University engineering professor Peter Pfaelzer. For the next fifteen years, Whirlwind continued to work primarily with wheelchair riders teaching them to build their own wheelchairs and helping them set up small wheelchair-building shops in more than 40 countries around the world. About the Year 2000, the impact of rapid globalization of the world economy began to be felt in the rehabilitation sector in the developing world. These effects were both positive and negative. They forced Whirlwind to engage in an internal debate about how best to move forward and led to a major shift in the organization’s strategy and functioning.

On a very practical level globalization meant that critical parts, like steel tubing & bearings, were becoming more and more available in standardized sizes around the world. Less customization of designs was required at each site. At the same time, the price of wheelchairs decreased as manufacturers in Asia greatly expanded their reach into the developing world. The growing appropriateness of larger scale production was matched by the growth in donor awareness of the huge need for wheelchairs in the developing world.

In 2006, the first International Conference on Manual Wheelchairs in Developing Countries was held in Bangalore, India. The conference brought together most of the major players in the field, resulting in a consensus that there needed to be guidelines for the proper provision of wheelchairs in the developing world. Whirlwind sat on the conference’s organizing committee. In 2008, the WHO published its Guidelines on the Provision of Manual Wheelchairs in Less-Resourced Settings. A number of Whirlwind’s staff contributed to the content, and Whirlwind’s executive director Marc Krizack was a member of the editorial board.

Publication of the Guidelines had an immediate impact on wheelchair provision by establishing the importance of proper provision as well as appropriate equipment. USAID, by far the largest single funder of international disability projects in the world, began to limit funding for wheelchair projects to those that included proper provision.

In 2006, Whirlwind made the decision to become a social enterprise, generating income not only from donations and grants but also from the sale of wheelchairs. With support from the Arthur B. Schultz Foundation, Whirlwind switched from a focus on small scale production to an emphasis on medium to large scale production. In 2008, the Kien Tuong Private Wheelchair Manufacture Company in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Vietnam became the first larger factory to make the Whirlwind RoughRider®. In 2014, production was established at the Intco wheelchair company in China.

As of the writing of this brief history, Whirlwind has larger capacity production in Mexico, Turkey, the Republic of Georgia, South Africa, Vietnam, and China. Whirlwind plans to add new factories only in countries which make it difficult to import wheelchairs, including Brazil and India. Whirlwind is currently extending its production network to Wheelchair Provision and Assembly Centers (WPACs) that will be sustainable businesses that serve the local need for wheelchairs and wheelchair services where manufacture is not economically viable. There are currently two such centers in Sierra Leone and Nigeria.


Whirlwind Wheelchair International is a non-profit social enterprise dedicated to improving the lives of people with disabilities in the developing world while promoting sustainable local economic development in the process. We work to make it possible for every person in the world who needs a high quality wheelchair to obtain one, leading to maximum personal independence and integration into society. By giving wheelchair riders a central role in all aspects of our designs and projects, Whirlwind ensures that our chairs are individually appropriate for each user and his or her respective environment. For thirty years in over 60 countries we have focused on producing durable, low-cost, and highly functional wheelchairs. These chairs give riders the reliable and functional mobility they need to reach their full potential. Our active adult wheelchair design, the RoughRider®, is used by 60,000 riders traveling over every terrain that only the best of wheelchairs can cross, from muddy village paths to rough pot-holed urban streets.

Whirlwind headquarters is located in Berkeley, California. Whirlwind is a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

Highly Functional Wheelchairs that Last and Last even in Rough Conditions


Wheelchair riders spend the greater part of each day trusting their wheelchairs for postural support and mobility. Wheelchairs, like cars, are about mobility and safety. Driving a city car off-road will most likely leave a person stuck and frustrated. For wheelchair riders in rough developing world conditions, the difference is that they cannot afford repairs and they cannot walk away from these situations. That’s why Whirlwind chairs are super-durable and capable on almost any terrain and use parts and materials that are readily available throughout the developing world.

The functional usefulness of a wheelchair affects the opportunities a rider can access as well as public perception of the rider and of disability. A broken-down wheelchair that is not designed for the terrain it must travel inhibits the rider’s ability to contribute to her family and community. This hurts her quality of life and diminishes the public’s perception of the capabilities and value of people with disabilities. A functional wheelchair designed for the challenges of its environment is a tool that enhances the rider’s ability to participate in family, social and economic activities.

Whirlwind Team

Marc Krizack
Marc KrizackExecutive Director
Whirlwind Executive Director since 2003; 2004 San Jose Tech Museum Laureate and member of Santa Clara University’s 2006 Global Social Benefit Incubator (GSBI) cohort. Read full BIO.
Joan Costello
Joan CostelloAdministrative Support
Long time volunteer with Whirlwind. Writer, editor of Whirlwind publications, Keeper of the Mailing list. Retired from University of California administration.
Read full BIO.
Ralf Hotchkiss
Ralf HotchkissFounder
Wheelchair-rider; engineer, inventor; Whirlwind co-founder; currently Whirlwind Chief Engineer. for 35+ years a wheelchair-designer - builder - trainer... Read full BIO.
Indriyanto S. Hardjo DIjono
Indriyanto S. Hardjo DIjonoEngineering Design & Quality Control
Indriyanto joined the Whirlwind Wheelchair team in 2012 for technical support and quality control. He is currently serving as Special Projects design team leader. Read full BIO.
Alexander Afonin
Alexander AfoninDesign & Mfg. Consultant
Alexander (Sasha) Afonin is a machinist, engineer, and wheelchair designer, with special expertise in manufacturing training, technology, and quality...Read full BIO.
Bob Incerti
Bob IncertiSF Operations Manager
Former Instructor in wheelchair design & fabrication. Heads up Whirlwind participation in San Francisco's Project Homeless Connect. Read full BIO
Bruce Curtis
Bruce CurtisAdvisory Board Member
Bruce Curtis is a member of Whirlwind's Advisory Board. He was the International Programs Manager for the World Institute on Disability... Read full BIO.
Maria Ulfah
Maria UlfahMarketing & Logistics
Maria Ulfah worked at the PT Dharma wheelchair factory in Jakarta, Indonesia before beginning work for Whirlwind in 2011. Based in Indonesia, Maria manages Whirlwind’s supply chain... Read full BIO.
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