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.