2020 Annual Newsletter

Dear Friends and Supporters,

It is now December 2020, eight months since the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown. The sale and distribution of Whirlwind Wheelchairs is on hold. As the quarantine began in April, Whirlwind staff decided to take a furlough, while doing our best to answer requests for wheelchairs and technical assistance.

Because of the severe shortage of protective face masks early in the pandemic, Contra Costa County offered Whirlwind a large number of N95 masks to give out to persons with disabilities. Whirlwind had hoped to distribute the masks through the numerous local disability organizations. Unfortunately, most disability organizations had closed their doors, so we are still looking for ways to distribute these masks.

Starting in 2019, Whirlwind began providing low-cost, subsidized Roughrider wheelchairs to persons on low fixed incomes. This was made possible by a generous $25,000 grant from the Frank Barham family. We have provided subsidized wheelchairs to 15 individuals so far.

Ralf Hotchkiss, Whirlwind’s founder and member of our board, worked early this year at ARSOBO, the Roughrider Wheelchair factory in Nogales, Mexico. Dr. Burris Duncan and Kiko Trujillo of ARSOBO have expressed interest in manufacturing an electric Roughrider with assistance offered by the engineering department of the University of Arizona. Whirlwind is sending ARSOBO a new model electric Roughrider from the Coalition for Independent Living factory in Tbilisi, Georgia. ARSOBO will examine and test this chair in hopes of optimizing it for their manufacture and use in rural Mexico.

In our 2020 annual newsletter, we are including stories from Whirlwind riders around the world. The cover story features a disability organization whose members had tried to push wheelchair riders up the extremely steep pathways of an ancient pilgrimage in Galicia, northwest Spain. The goal of the pilgrimage is to honor the apostle St. James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Another story is revealed in a request for replacement parts by two Haitian Roughrider owners. Both received their chairs from Whirlwind 5 years ago after their catastrophic earthquake.

Whirlwind needs any amount of financial donations that you can provide to help us survive the COVID-19 quarantine lockdown. Even though our operational costs are low, Whirlwind’s income has been greatly reduced. No one knows if or when the economy will return to normal and many donors have changed their priorities in order to deal with the problems of COVID-19.

All contributions to keep Whirlwind alive and operating are greatly appreciated!

With gratitude, 

Bruce Curtis
Chairperson of the Board of Directors

Pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago

My name is María Ángeles Iñiguez and I am writing on behalf of the AMIF (Association of People with Physical Disability). AMIF is an association of the city of Villena (Alicante-Spain) and it is dedicated to assist physically disabled persons.

In October 2015, we attempted to make the Pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago to realize the dreams of a group of people, that due to their physical disabilities and without the helping of our volunteers, had never lived this experience.

This amazing experience, which was unimaginable for most disabled persons, has been the motive for planning another way. But, to do it we purchased 5 RoughRider wheelchairs from FUNDACION BERTHA O DE OSETE in Mexico.

After a long and arduous process of talking with customs and drug agency officials, we only had to talk to the Pope and the King, we were able to get the RoughRider wheelchairs out of the Spain customs. I think we got the certificate for being tired.

We completed a stage on the Camino de Santiago from Roncesvalles to Logroño, without speaking! We are always in contact with the local police, as that year the Policía Foral de Navarra were with us for almost the whole time.

Firstly, when the couple of policemen introduced themselves to us, they told us they could stay with us for only one day because they had other things to do, however it didn’t happen that way. The second day of walking toward Pamplona, we called the police to communicate that we were starting to walk and they told us that they would be waiting for us at a crossroads, which would lead to a road accessible to our group. But the police were not there, so we followed the signs and those signs led us to the ancient road, Camino de Santiago. It was an old mountain side path that became so narrow, that we couldn’t go back. We could only continue very carefully because on one side we had the wall of the mountain but on the other side we had nothing but moss on the path edge, and if we would step on the moss, we would slip. There was even a moment where our volunteers had to lift up each wheelchair with the person sitting in it. When we got to the end of the mountain path the police were waiting for us, surprised to see that we had passed through with the wheelchairs. From that day on they became our Guardians and I think they won´t forget us and we won´t forget that day either.

In October 2019, we did another stage of the Camino de Santiago, this time from Logroño to Burgos. Unfortunately, this year 2020, we won´t be able to do another stage due to Covid 19 and until the situation is calmer, we prefer to postpone until next year. I hope so. We have more people/partners interested in coming with us: either to travel or to enjoy the walks in the fields that we do every month. We also participate in the San Silvestre Vallecana; as well as a Marathon for people with intellectual disabilities; or in the walk for the integration of people with disabilities.

As you can see, we are making the most of the RoughRider wheelchairs and are proud to be able to bring out smiles and of course we always enjoy our people becoming part of our family.

A Request from HCBH hospital in Haiti

Hello Whirlwind,

I am messaging from HCBH hospital in Haiti. We have 4 RoughRider wheelchair users who need some replacement parts. We need main wheel bearings for 4 wheelchairs, plus 3 new pairs of front wheels, the worst of which is coming apart. These parts are for very active guys (you can see them at work making a table) who have enjoyed their RoughRider wheelchairs for 4 years. They look after them so well but the physical material on the front wheels need replacing. — Rob Dalton

Ralf Hotchkiss responded:

You need to research local hardware stores or motorcycle shops to identify if they have the following size bearing available to purchase: Bearing#6202 (15mm inside diameter – 35mm outside diameter – 11mm thick). This is a common bearing available worldwide, which is why it was selected for use in the hub bearings and front wheel bearings on the RoughRider wheelchair. This #6202 bearing usually has a long life but it will only work for 1 to 2 years in the rough conditions of Haiti near the sea. I am speaking with a local bearing manufacturer in Oakland, California about making an improved version with a longer life, possibly up to 5 years. 

In your photographs, there is a lot of rust on the frame and forks and to maintain the strength of the metal, they need to be sanded down and repainted to protect the metal from corrosive salt water and other chemicals in the Haiti dirt/mud. Use steel wool or sandpaper to sand down the rust on all of the metal and after sanding it down, use a spray can of rust reformer paint to protect the metal. If you cannot find rust reformer paint, use the common red primer, which is available almost everywhere.

The conditions of the roads and dirt paths in Haiti are extreme for wearing out the rubber on the front wheels. We suggest new front Zimbabwe wheels for each person plus a backup replacement pair. Therefore, we will send you 16 Zimbabwe wheels with axles/bearings. We are hoping that you will be able to find replacement tires for the back wheels in Haiti? They are available at bicycle shops, which carry 24-inch tires.

Wow! What amazing advice and what an incredible offer of the Zimbabwe wheels! Harold (a very active user I see every day) just had his front left wheel snap off yesterday and is very upset. The RoughRider wheelchair is literally the best physical possession he has and his lifeline to the world. This is amazing news. I will hunt for the wheel bearings; those measurements will prove invaluable! We also have sandpaper and red oxide rust paint to apply when changing them. SO grateful for your help!

Regarding the back wheels, one RoughRider user here (Fritz, the carpenter in the photos) has replaced his back tires with mountain bike style tires and they work great.

(Whirlwind sent 16 Zimbabwe wheels, new spokes, 32 bearings #6202, hand-packed at Whirlwind with 80% grease, instead of the normal 40% grease, for a longer life.)

The Whirlwind Wheelchair: What Can Come Next?

We stay committed to working with members of the Whirlwind Network to appraise and improve the Whirlwind Roughrider. We are striving toward independent mobility, further and further away from the beaten track. We need the best of chairs for the worst of conditions.

The pandemic has made it harder to exchange new ideas with our network – travel is out of the question. But some of Whirlwind’s best collaborators are taking advantage of the quarantine and trying out inventions for which they had no time before. Among these are some who have invented critical aspects of Whirlwind’s chairs for over 40 years! We just hope that all in our network, along with our families, come out on the other side healthy and strong.

Our latest Roughrider is designed for use both indoors and outdoors. It is exceptionally strong, but no heavier than a standard wheelchair. This chair is buildable and repairable with tools and materials that are available throughout most of the world. But while the Whirlwind is more mobile than most wheelchairs, there are places where it is too slow, too hard to push, or where it simply cannot go. We do have potential solutions for some of these problems, but can we make these solutions practical?


A lot of the rider’s energy is wasted trying to push a wheelchair over paths that are tilted for drainage. The weight on the front wheels pulls them down the slope, the front wheels turn to the side and the chair veers off the trail. To force the front wheels to turn back up the slope the rider must drag one hand on its hand-rim. This is like riding with the brakes on. More than half of the rider’s energy is often taken just to keep the front of the chair from being pulled down into the gutter.

A chair will roll in a straight line along-side slopes if it has very little weight on the front wheels. Some riders reduce the weight on their front wheels by moving their rear wheels to a position further forward on the chair. They ride their chairs very easily, regardless of side slopes. They also tip over backwards easily, especially when they climb hills.

The rear wheels can be safely moved forward, thus nearly eliminating downhill turning, if a flexible wheelie bar is installed on the back of the chair. We hope that we can design a wheelie bar that functions very well, yet still is cheap, light and simple.

A wheelie bar unfortunately blocks the way when the chair and its rider are being pulled backwards upstairs. When the chair rolls away from the stairs, the wheelie bar must be re-deployed to keep the chair from tipping backwards. This re-deployment must be automatic, yet purely mechanical.


Many wheelchair riders can push easily over flat floors, but they lack the strength and endurance to go very far outdoors. They don’t want the cost and weight that come with full power wheelchairs; they just need a little push.

The tip of a well-designed wheelie bar could serve as an excellent mounting point for a single motorized wheel. The rider could travel quickly while still pushing as hard as was comfortable on their hand-rims. They would still get the exercise they need. The harder they could push on their hand-rims, the farther they could go and the lighter and cheaper their battery could be.

We are happiest when we have the input of the experts we know. They are wheelchair riders, welders, bicycle builders, engineers, artists and business people, women and men, very young and very old. We need the wisdom of anyone from anywhere who has the interest to observe and create; the more diverse the network the better. 

The best of chair for the worst of conditions!

Designing 21st Century Vehicles For Persons With Disabilities

The Merlin Prize for accessible, autonomous, electric vehicles (A2EV) is a crowd-sourced design competition to generate innovative and inclusive transportation solutions for people with physical, sensory, and/or cognitive disabilities. Automotive industry experts predict that electric vehicles (EVs) will surpass the number of gas-powered vehicles on the road in the coming decades, and virtually all autonomous vehicles are electric. The goal of this challenge is to make autonomous, electric vehicles accessible for all.

Whirlwind Board members Ralf Hotchkiss and Bruce Curtis were contacted by the Merlin Mobility Foundation and invited to speak with Lawrence Williams, the founder of Merlin Mobility and President of the Merlin Mobility Foundation. Mr. Williams explained his interest and reasons for creating the Merlin Prize Challenge and invited both of us to participate as judges. The 16 judges were asked to identify their 1st, 2nd and 3rd place choices from the engineering design submissions of individuals, as well as, from organizations. After lengthy discussion among all of the judges and based on the total scores received by individual judges, the three Merlin Prize Challenge winners were identified. However, everyone was in agreement that no one had submitted a design proposal for an accessible electric automobile, which was ready for commercial production.

A Request from Fort Larned National Historic Site

When Fort Larned National Historic Site built a new parking lot in 2013, getting to the Visitor Center became a much longer walk over historic ground. In other words, visitors cannot access the historic buildings or the Visitor Center in a vehicle. We have visitors daily who don’t mind the quarter mile walk. But there are plenty of visitors who are not able to walk for various health reasons. Many are elderly, yet still yearning to learn about our history.

The Roughrider wheelchair has been used by appreciative visitors for about 6 years. It solves the problem of visitors who need a wheelchair, which sometimes happens daily. The visitors and staff are dependent on having the wheelchair. It is still in good condition except the back and seat upholstery are worn out. Do you have replacement parts so we can get it fixed up this winter?

George Elmore
Chief Ranger
Fort Larned NHS

Whirlwind responded: 

We are sending you a 2-inch seat tube extender that is already attached to your new seat fabric, which you will screw into the existing holes on the 14-inch seat tubes. You just need to unscrew the screws holding the seat fabric, take out the long thin metal form inside the seat fabric seam edge. Then insert the long thin metal form inside the seat fabric seam edge of the new seat fabric and screw the seat fabric into the frame with the screws. 

For the new back rest fabric, you will need to pull the push handles off of the back of the chair before you pull the backrest fabric over the backrest tubes. Please use boiling hot water in two, 1/2-gallon plastic containers, and put both push handles while still attached to the back rest tubes into the hot water for about one minute. Then you can pull off the plastic push handles. Pull the back fabric over the backrest tubes and reattach the push handles with crazy glue.