2021 Annual Newsletter

Dear Friends and Supporters,

During 2021, Whirlwind returned to its roots of assisting small-scale RoughRider wheelchair factories, which we helped to establish during the last 40 years. Some of these smaller RoughRider businesses did not survive because of local economic conditions, management issues and the lack of support from their Ministries of Health, which preferred to purchase $90-$100 institutional wheelchairs from China’s megafactories through government tenders.

The economic survival of these small wheelchair businesses depends on convincing local buyers that the RoughRider wheelchair, which is made with mild steel, will last 15 years in harsh living conditions and is cheaply repairable with bicycle parts and at local welding shops. However, many of the riders who have some money prefer the light-weight sports wheelchairs with flashy colors and modern detailing, while the families and individuals who are poor take the free wheelchairs distributed by international charities and churches, regardless of the quality and repairability of the free wheelchairs. These are two of the reasons for small RoughRider businesses not having enough customers to keep their businesses economically viable.

In order to keep these businesses alive by selling their wheelchairs, many of our partners need to improve the quality of their RoughRider. Therefore, Whirlwind has started providing technical assistance to 3 RoughRider wheelchair businesses: the ARSOBO factory in Nogales, Mexico, the Fundación Bertha O. De Osete I.A.P.
factory located in San Juan del Río, Querétaro, México, and the KIFAS factory in Ankara, Turkey. Whirlwind
has asked the two RoughRider businesses in Mexico to send us their wheelchairs, which will be analyzed by Ralf Hotchkiss and Levan Talakhadze for their production quality and for recommendations on how to improve the production quality control in each factory. Salam Hassan, a wheelchair designer, volunteered to help Ken Erickson, owner/manager of the KIFAS factory in Turkey, restart his wheelchair production after closure during the Covid quarantine and the loss of his senior welder. Salam was sent in December by Whirlwind to KIFAS to help improve the welding fixtures for their RoughRider, improve quality control, and to train their new Iraqi welder.

Another important development in 2021 has been our recent attempt to create a low cost, full power electric RoughRider using new hub motor technology from China. We were not happy with our first attempt, which was implemented 10 years ago in the Republic of Georgia, because the older hub motor technology was heavy and required frequent repairs. As you will see in this newsletter, we are cautiously optimistic about our prototype efforts in collaboration with NIOION TECHNOLOGIES CO., LTD, which is based in Jiangsu, China.

Unfortunately, Peter Pfaelzer, cofounder of Whirlwind died in 2021. Peter was fundamental to the development and success of Whirlwind. We will miss his spirit, ingenuity and persistence in pursuing our goals. Finally, we want to thank all of our friends and generous supporters who share our values in a well designed, highly functional and locally repairable RoughRider wheelchair, which has become the best wheelchair for the worst conditions

we encounter as we go out into the world. Whirlwind is committed to always improving the functionality of our RoughRider so that even more people will experience the joy of being alive and realizing their best dreams in the beauty of the world outdoors for themselves, their children and for their elderly relatives. Please help us to continue helping others live their life as fully as possible in this world and with as much happiness as possible.

With gratitude, 


Bruce Curtis
Chairperson of the Board of Directors


Safety First, Second and Third

When Whirlwind was formed in 1980, it was well known that many wheelchair riders got hurt (some seriously) when they rode outdoors. I had a 24-year history of falling once or twice a year, either forward or backward. With the forward falls came broken bones; with the backward falls, concussions. Ralph Nader, with whom I had worked on safety issues through the 1970s, urged earnest attention to the grave dangers of wheelchair design. Ralph Nader’s input, and his support, continues to this day. And I, along with my fellow riders and designers in Whirlwind’s network, am dead serious about designing our chairs to be as stable and safe as they can possibly be.
By 1990 we had greatly increased the strength of our chairs, making the common failures of critical parts a thing of the past. Safety First! Backward tipping, unfortunately, was still as bad as ever. It seemed that every solution we created brought problems to other aspects of how the wheelchair functioned.

But Whirlwind’s cofounder, Peter Pfaelzer, gave Whirlwind a challenge that has kept us busy ever since. Our group had lost its focus; we were trying to solve too many problems at once. Peter proposed that we first learn as much as possible about when, and why wheelchairs fail. We knew from experience that injuries to wheelchair riders were quite common. But little was known about whether the incidents and the injuries came primarily from tips and falls, from chairs breaking down, or from other factors.

Because so many active people ride (and crash) their wheelchairs in the San Francisco Bay Area, we found it easy to learn from them how and why these crashes occur, and what injuries resulted. A Whirlwind team led by Ronny Gall spread the word in the community that we were looking for wheelchair riders who had crashed their chairs. Of the 252 incidents that we found, most, 42%, were tips or falls, while 33% were chair equipment failures. The riders in 27% of the incidents required medical treatment. 13 riders (5%) required hospitalization.

The most common injuries came from tips and falls, either in the forward or the backward direction. Forward falls damage more people, so we chose to concentrate on forward falls. This concentrated work paid off with the much longer wheelbase of the RoughRider. Now the RoughRider has virtually no forward tipping problem. Second major Safety Problem solved!

That leaves us with the problem of backwards falls. Whirlwind and others have struggled to eliminate the problem of backwards tipping by using wheelie bars. Some worked quite well, but all shared a common problem: wheelie bars stick out behind, getting in the way when the chair and its rider need to be pulled up or bounced down stairs.
By the 1970s, I had a wheelie bar that was easily folded up and put out of the way. However, one day I was trying to get into the New York subway when a strong person offered to bounce me down the stairs. All went well until we reached the bottom of the stairs. I thanked him heartily, gave a strong forward push to my chair, and my head fell backward onto the solid concrete.

Needless to say we changed our design criteria immediately. From that day forward any retractable wheelie bar was required to re-deploy itself, by itself, before the chair could safely roll forward again.
Such a wheelie bar must be light, cheap and very safe. I have built several and some work well, but not yet well enough. If we can solve this retractable wheelie bar problem, we will have Safety First, Safety Second, and Safety Third!


Do You Want To Help This Start Up Mobility Business In Tanzania?

Archy Gomba, Founder and Director of the Shirati for Active Rehabilitation and Development Organization (SARDO), aims to promote the social and economic inclusion of people with disabilities into all aspects of life in Tanzania. As an adult with a physical disability, an arm amputated below the elbow, Archy grew up understanding how disability can create barriers to getting an education, getting a job or being accepted in the community. During the summer of 2019, Archy was invited to participate in the Professional Fellowship Program on Inclusive Disability Employment, which was supported by: U.S. Department of State, Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD); ICI-UMass Boston; and by Humanity & Inclusion. This professional fellowship supported Archy during his five weeks of residencies in different States, where he learned about disability rights, small business development and employment inclusion.

Whirlwind met Archy while he was visiting Berkeley, California and learning about: local and international disability organizations; disability inclusive community support services; adaptive sports programs; as well as small shop wheelchair manufacturing. In the summer of 2019, Whirlwind provided Archy with a RoughRider wheelchair to take back to Tanzania with him, since he wanted to learn how to set up a RoughRider wheelchair workshop in his home village. After returning home and getting married, Archy saw the need to create a business, which makes and sells solar powered and handcycle tricycles, which would greatly help local persons who have limited mobility become more independent and be able to start a business or get an education.

So Archy developed a prototype of a solar powered electric tricycle, using locally available parts from friends. With a little technical assistance from Whirlwind, Archy successfully created in his workshop a solar tricycle prototype, using 26 inch bicycle wheels, including: an iron chassis, a 15W solar panel, a 24V motor and lithium batteries. Parts that were locally available from friends in Tanzania cost him $299, not including labor or the solar panel.

In addition, Archy has created a handcycle tricycle, which is less expensive, in order to meet the mobility needs of persons with disabilities who do not have much money. Local people have been watching as he constructed his prototypes of solar powered and handcycle tricycles and many people have said that they wanted to buy one. Archy has identified the parts that he wants to purchase from China in order to make larger quantities of these solar tricycles for sale and he wants to expand his workshop business in order to begin selling handcycle and solar powered tricycles and to be able to sell his tricycles in other cities. If you wish to financially or mechanically help Archy finish his prototypes and go to the next stage of of his business by making larger quantities of these tricycles for sale, please contact him:


Archy E. Gomba
Shirati, Kabwana, P. O. Box 9, Rorya-Mara, Tanzania
Phone: +255-75-849-7292
Email: archygo@gmail.com


RoughRider Wheelchairs to Oglala Lakota Amputees

During the last week of July 2021, Whirlwind sent a RoughRider wheelchair to Mike Black Elk, who is a single amputee and a client of the Oglala Sioux Tribal (OST) Vocational Rehabilitation Services on Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota. On August 2, another RoughRider wheelchair was sent to Kevin Poor Bear, who is a double amputee and also a client of the OST Vocational Rehabilitation Services.

Jim Warne at the OST 
Vocational Rehabilitation Office 
on Pine Ridge Reservation

Jim Warne, photographed with one of the Roughrider wheelchairs that he helped Whirlwind donate to the OST Vocational Rehabilitation Office, also helped the University of South Dakota to establish the Oyate` Circle, a Tribal College Disability Center. The Oyate’ Circle is a resource, education, outreach and training effort that serves Native Americans with disabilities in South Dakota. Led by Oglala Lakota tribal member Jim Warne and named after the Lakota word for “the people,” the Oyate’ Circle conducts education and outreach campaigns about the needs of Native Americans with disabilities. It also offers resources and training for tribal communities and informs them about programs and opportunities available through the center and other agencies.

Both wheelchairs were sent free of charge to Mike and Kevin by Whirlwind due to a generous gift from the widow of Frank Barham, a wheelchair user who was accidentally killed on the highway by a semi-truck while conducting a RoughRider wheelchair fundraising campaign outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Upon receiving Adriana Barham’s donation, Whirlwind set up a Frank Barham Memorial Fund to subsidize RoughRider wheelchairs for Americans who were unable to purchase one for themselves or their family members. These two wheelchairs are the last of 25 RoughRider wheelchairs, which were subsidized by the Frank Barham Memorial Fund and distributed to low-income individuals in the United States from 2019 to 2021.

Whirlwind is hoping to receive additional funding to continue sending RoughRider wheelchairs to Native Americans who need a rugged outdoor wheelchair, which can easily travel over the difficult environments in which they live and can be easily repaired with locally available welding and bicycle parts. The RoughRider wheelchair has been distributed in over 60 countries across the world because of its ability to move easily through mud, grass, snow, uneven streets, and cobblestones without tipping over.


The Next Electric RoughRider Wheelchair

Whirlwind and the Coalition for Independent Living created an electric RoughRider wheelchair in 2014 in the Republic of Georgia by using electric bicycle technology from China. Since 2014, the Government of Georgia has purchased 275 electric RoughRider wheelchairs and distributed them throughout Georgia. However, this electric bicycle technology was 10 years old and was not constructed with high-quality components, which required the Georgian Wheelchair Workshop to modify and improve this technology. Currently, their electric RoughRiders have been free of working problems for one year of use.

From this Georgian experience, Whirlwind now understands that in order to successfully use electric bicycle technology for electric wheelchairs in developing countries, we need to identify hub-motors and electronics, which will work reliably over several years without any breakdowns or modifications.

Whirlwind proceeded to identify a business in China, NIOION TECHNOLOGIES CO., LTD, which had experience with power wheelchairs and power add-on technology and we asked if they would be willing to help us to adapt their electronics to a Roughrider wheelchair. The President of NIOION, Avery Liu, enthusiastically identified a hub motor, controller, joystick and lithium battery and Whirlwind purchased a RoughRider wheelchair from the CLASP warehouse in Shanghai for NIOION to use for their prototype development in their facilities.

Avery assembled the components onto his RoughRider wheelchair and shared a small video of the working prototype. These components are now being shipped to Ralf Hotchkiss and will be assembled onto a RoughRider wheelchair and tested for durability and mobility performance. After Ralf has determined that the hub motors and electronics work successfully and reliably over several months, Whirlwind will be shipping a 2nd set of hub motors and components to the ARSOBO RoughRider factory in Nogales, Mexico for them to prototype and possibly sell locally in the Mexican market. The ARSOBO manager said that they have received several inquiries from local individuals who want to purchase an electric wheelchair. Whirlwind will send a 3rd set of hub motors and components to the RoughRider factory in the Republic of Georgia for them to test locally and a 4th set of hub motors and components to the KIFAS RoughRider factory in Turkey. Hopefully, we will be successful with our electric RoughRider 2 prototype and Whirlwind can begin exploring how to expand the availability of a low-cost, foldable, lightweight, electric RoughRider wheelchair through the CLASP business network.


Letter From a Grateful Recipient of the Frank Barham Memorial Fund

Nine months ago, your organization helped me by giving me a RoughRider wheelchair for a price I could afford on my low income. I live full time in a camper van out in nature and I wasn’t able to get around on the rough terrain that I live on with my walker or a standard wheelchair and I can’t go very far with my crutches. My life was very limited and although I could look at nature every day from my van, I could not easily explore it. Since I got my Whirlwind RoughRider wheelchair, I have learned to wheelchair “hike” with it. I have taken it on lots of trails and I’m getting really good at traversing difficult terrain.

Last week I was lucky to be able to visit the Acadia National Park in Maine. The scenery was breathtaking! And because I had my RoughRider wheelchair, I was able to go “hiking” and see the scenery up close! Here is a picture of me sitting next to Jordan Pond in my Whirlwind wheelchair! Your organization made this experience possible for me and I am immensely grateful! Thank you so much for the amazing work you do getting us disabled folks out into nature. I can never thank you enough for the amazing experiences I’ve had “hiking” in my chair over the last 9 months. You are all amazing! Keep up the good work!

With love and gratitude,
Sarah Meg


Kellogg Racial Equity Challenge 2030

In 2020, the W.K. Kellogg Racial Equity Challenge 2030 announced that it was offering $90 million to help build and scale actionable ideas for transformative change in the systems and institutions that uphold racial inequities. Whirlwind was invited to join a consortium of 6 organizations, Arizona Sonora Border Project for Inclusion (ARSOBO), University of Arizona Sonoran Center for Excellence in Disabilities, Warrior Society Development, LLC, Oyate Circle, University of South Dakota, Center for Disabilities, Whirlwind Wheelchair International, Bio-mechatronics Group, Center for Extreme Bionics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics), which proposed a 5-year project.

The project would be carried out by Redefining American Indigenous Disability Inclusion Equity Now and Tomorrow (RAIDIENT), a reservation-based social enterprise focused on disabilities and employment inequities. RAIDIENT’s vision is to reduce Native American disability inequities by establishing four Native American social-enterprises that would address disability health technologies and services for over thirty Tribal Nations.

We proposed to train and hire Tribal members with disabilities to build for others the medical devices they use themselves. The RAIDIENT team includes disability advocates and Native Americans with disabilities who would use their cultural heritage and professional expertise to promote community development for Native American Tribes. RAIDIENT would “on-the-job” train Native Americans with Disabilities on Tribal Reservations to implement professional services including RoughRider wheelchair assembly, wheelchair repair and modification, customized prosthetic/orthotic fabrication, hearing aid distribution, diabetes management and amputation prevention programs.

Sadly, our consortium of 6 organizations was not successful and was not included in the final selection of 10 projects. However, ARSOBO is continuing to work with the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Reservation in Arizona in order to provide low cost hearing aids and RoughRider wheelchairs and Whirlwind has donated two RoughRider wheelchairs to Lakota amputees living on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.