Manufacturing assistive devices in developing countries

Independence through Mobility by Ralf Hotchkiss is a book about the nuts and bolts of starting a shop and producing the Hotchkiss manual wheelchair with a minimum of equipment, materials, skills and capital in Third World countries. Internet publication URL:

Independence through Mobility by Ralf Hotchkiss is a book about the nuts and bolts of starting a shop and producing the Hotchkiss manual wheelchair with a minimum of equipment, materials, skills and capital in Third World countries. 

Disabled people in the Third World are fighting to become actively involved in their communities, more mobile, and economically independent. To accomplish this, they need wheelchairs that are strong enough to withstand the stresses of maneuvering over rugged terrain, yet light and compact enough to be agile and easily portable. These wheelchairs must be affordable and designed to be repaired locally.

With four year's support from Appropriate Technology International and the assistance of wheelchair builders in over 20 countries, Ralf Hotchkiss has designed a sturdy wheelchair that is ten pounds lighter than similarly featured commercial models. It can be manufactured locally by small groups of skilled mechanics in areas with access to thinwall steel tubing and simple welding equipment. It costs approximately $80 (U.S.) for materials plus the cost, with overhead, of less than a week's work by a skilled mechanic.

This book contains detailed instructions for making the ATI-Hotchkiss Torbellino wheelchair, plus detailed information on the establishment and operation of the successful small businesses which have manufactured and sold the Torbellino wheelchair.

From the table of contents: starting a small business; tools and shop facilities; jigs; designing each chair to fit; taking care of the chair; wheelchair design challenges.

Introduction to Independence through Mobility:

Disabled people throughout the world, together with their families and friends, are beginning to change the ways that they live, work, and participate in their communities. Refusing to be defined by the attitude that they are a burden on society and no longer willing to remain hidden from others, disabled people are fighting to become actively integrated into schools, regular jobs, places to live, and public life. The know from experience that they can do many things well; they know that being successful does not have to be the exception for disabled people. They intend to live with independence and dignity, and are rapidly overcoming the obstacles that stand in their way.

Just as a blacksmith needs high quality tools to do a specific job, disabled people need the highest quality equipment to assist them in actively pursuing their goals. People whose mobility needs are not met by crutches or canes need wheelchairs that will enable them to be as mobile, productive, and independent as possible.

In the industrial world, the increasing demand from disabled people for mobility and independence has resulted in a revolution in wheelchair design. Lighter and faster chairs made of space-age materials are being introduced every year. These new wheelchairs designs are allowing U.S. wheelchair riders to compete in events such as the Boston Marathon (where the wheelchair racers make better time than the runners), to get to classes and jobs on time, and to move more easily, thus saving their energy for other tasks.

Unfortunately, the high cost of lightweight wheelchairs has put them out of reach of most of the Third World's disabled people. Those who can afford the high price of imported chairs often find that the chairs are not built to withstand the stresses of dirt roads, farm fields, curb climbing, and pocked pavement. When mechanical failures occur, it is often impossible to obtain replacement parts.

Poorer disabled people have either gone without a wheelchair or have used locally manufactured models that are often heavy, confining, and lacking in many of the necessary features of state of the art chairs.

Third World wheelchair riders need wheelchairs that can fold to fit in crowded living quarters or in the aisle of a bus. Many need wheelchairs with folding footrests that allow the rider to pull in close to beds and tables, and armrests that do not impede lateral transfer. These wheelchairs should have good traction, stability, and should be light and agile enough for the rider to travel over rough ground. Wheelchairs built for riders in the Third World should be strong enough to withstand rough handling (as they are tossed on and off the roof of a bus). When parts not least, these wheelchairs must be affordable. Fancy wheelchairs are of no use if no one can afford to purchase them.

Working over the past four years with the support of Appropriate Technology International, and with the assistance of wheelchair builders in over 20 countries, we have designed the ATI-Hotchkiss wheelchair, the Torbellino (the chair was first named Torbellino, or whirlwind, in Peru). This wheelchair is ten pounds lighter than commercial wheelchairs with similar features, yet it is strong enough to stand up to heavy use. It can be manufactured locally and could be sold in many countries for less than one third of the cost of a comparable import.

Most wheelchairs are designed to be mass produced using highly expensive press forming equipment. Since capital and materials are severely limited in many Third World countries while resourceful labor is abundant, conventional manufacturing techniques are inappropriate. The Torbellino wheelchair has been designed to be built by small groups of mechanics using inexpensive handtools in areas where workers have access to thin wall steel tubing and gas welding. A high level of skill i required to build these chairs successfully; a high level of investment is not.

E. F. Schumacher in his book Small Is Beautiful said: "Any third-rate engineer or researcher can increase complexity; but it takes a certain flair of real insight to make things simple again." Our wheelchair design is a collection of such insights gained worldwide from some of the best wheelchair builders, many of whom are also wheelchair users. We have tapped into a rapidly growing network of small-scale wheelchair makers who are developing, producing, and selling full featured wheelchairs at highly competitive prices.

This manual has been written to make this technology generally available. It includes step by step descriptions of how to build the ATI-Hotchkiss wheelchair, guidelines for starting a small manufacturing business, detailed lists of the tools, parts, and other equipment you will need to begin production, as well as many photographs and diagrams which we hope will communicate when words fail us.

Even as this book goes to press, new ideas are being developed to improve the design of the chair and the methods for production. This diagram is our most recent design. We hope that you will use the ideas in this manual, improve upon them, and send us drawings and explanations of your good ideas. In this way you can join in the efforts of many others throughout the world who, by successfully manufacturing low cost wheelchairs, are enabling members of their communities to live more independent, productive, and dignified lives.

Ralf Hotchkiss

Cooperating organizations:

Transcentury Foundation, Washington, D.C.
Combined Disabilities Association, Kingston, Jamaica
* Foundation for Advanced Education (FES) and Program for Small Enterprises (DESAP), Cali, Colombia
* United States Peace Corps, Paraguay
Goodwill International, Washington, D.C.
Asociación de Rehabilitación Integral, Costa Rica
Ciudad de los Niños, Cartago, Costa Rica
Partners of the Americas, Washington, D.C.
Federación Nacional de Impedidos del Peru, Lima
Appropriate Health Resources and Technologies Action Group, Ltd., London, England
* Fundación Hondereña de Rehabilitación y Integración de Limitados Fisicos, Tegucigalpa, Honduras
* Centro de Rehabilitación Vocacional, Guatemala City, Guatemala
* Comite Regional de Rehabilitación, Medellin, Colombia
* RESCU, P.O. Box 66044 KOPJE, Harare, Zimbabwe
* Fundación Pro-Rehabilitación del Minusvalido, Bogota, Colombia
* Program for Assisting small Enterprises (PROAPE), Dominican Republic
* Servicio Evanglico Peruano de Acción Social, Lima, Peru
* Organizacion de Revolucionarios Discapacitados, ORD, Managua, Nicaragua

* These organizations operate wheelchair shops using ATI-Hotchkiss innovations

Independence through Mobility: A Guide to the Manufacture of the ATI-Hotchkiss Wheelchair