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, Turkey and China.
Since 2020, Whirlwind has not been directly selling wheelchairs to the public and instead has been focusing on providing technical assistance to existing factories that are manufacturing Roughrider wheelchairs, in order to upgrade and improve the quality of their wheelchairs.