About Us

About Us 2018-03-23T07:49:37+00:00

Whirlwind co-founder Ralf Hotchkiss’s work in developing countries began in 1980 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 officially founded in 1989 by Mr. Hotchkiss and San Francisco State University engineering professor, Peter Pfaelzer. For the next fifteen years, Whirlwind continued to work primarily with wheelchair riders by teaching them to build their own wheelchairs and by helping them to 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 organizationally move forward and this debate led to a major shift in the organization’s strategy and functioning. On a very practical level globalization meant that critical wheelchair building parts, like steel tubing & bearings, were becoming more and more available in standardized sizes around the world. Less customization of wheelchair designs was required at each site. At the same time, the price of wheelchairs decreased as manufacturers in Asia greatly expanded their wheelchair exporting reach into the developing world market. Thankfully, the growing appropriateness of larger scale wheelchair production was matched by the growth in donor awareness of the huge need for wheelchairs in the less resourced countries.

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

Publication of the WHO Guidelines had an immediate positive impact on wheelchair provision in less resourced countries by establishing the importance of proper wheelchair provision as well as the importance of appropriate wheelchairs. However, USAID, by far the largest single funder of international disability projects in the world, began to decrease their funding for wheelchair production projects and increased their funding for projects, which were focused on developing and implementing the proper provision of an appropriate wheelchair, according to the WHO Guidelines

In 2006, Whirlwind made the decision to become a social enterprise organization, which generated 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 wheelchair 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, RoughRider production also started at the Intco wheelchair company in China.

At this time, Whirlwind has collaborative wheelchair production relationships in the Republic of Georgia, South Africa, Vietnam, Mexico, Canada and China. In addition, Whirlwind Is currently collaborating with Peace Wheels, a custom wheelchair manufacturing business in Marrakesh, Morocco, in order to begin manufacturing a lightweight, rigid frame, long-wheel base wheelchair. Whirlwind has also extended its production network by helping to create Wheelchair Provision and Assembly Centers (WPACs), which will be sustainable businesses serving the local need for wheelchairs and wheelchair services in cities where local manufacture is not yet economically viable. Currently, there are two WPACs, one in Sierra Leone and one in 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.