Engineering a Life : ‘Genius’ Award Winner Ralf Hotchkiss Is Devoted to Helping Others Live as Fully as He Does

Times Staff Writer

The photograph on a living room table shows a handsome family of three: a vibrant brunette woman with bangs, a brown-haired man with bright green eyes and a small grinning boy with apple cheeks and curly locks.

It is what the picture does not portray that gives the viewer pause, for both Ralf Hotchkiss and Deborah Kaplan are, as they call themselves, “wheelchair-riders.”

Each suffered injuries in college; he was a rising junior at Oberlin when he flipped out on a motorcycle and broke his back; she was a student at Berkeley when she dived into a shallow pond and broke her neck.

Separately, they fought their way back to normal lives. When they met, their disabilities did not prevent them from marrying, nor stop them three years ago from adopting a child. And last week, disability did not stand in Hotchkiss’ way as he became one of 29 national winners of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowships, or “genius” awards, as they are known.


A 41-year-old engineer, Hotchkiss designs wheelchairs and supervises a network of shops in 15 developing countries where people with disabilities build chairs using inexpensive local materials.

So the viewer of the family portrait hesitates no more than an eye-blink. The Hotchkiss/Kaplan habitat is not a place for stereotypes.

Set on a pine-cloaked bluff in the Oakland hills overlooking the San Francisco Bay, the redwood-sided house is homey and cluttered. An inventor’s accumulation of tools and parts spills over from a machine shop into the domestic spaces of wildflower arrangements, wine bottles, papers and books.

Hotchkiss greets his visitor with the still-fresh elation of his good fortune. “It’s fantastic, outrageous, beyond belief!” he says of the tax-free award, which the foundation gives to enable recipients to pursue creative endeavors in the arts, sciences and community affairs.


Hotchkiss will receive $260,000 over the next five years. “Hey!” he cries. “That’s more money than I’ve ever seen at once.”

Wearing a plaid shirt and corduroys, he wheels through the house, delivering a wrench to a student assistant, setting out tuna salad and blueberries for lunch.

Kaplan, a lawyer with the World Institute on Disability, a Berkeley-based private organization, is at work; their son, Desmond, named for the South African civil rights leader, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is at day care school.

Hotchkiss has spent the morning writing an article on beach ramps to allow wheelchairs to roll down into the ocean.

He is passionate on the subject of independent living for disabled people, and, flipping through pictures in specialized magazines, underscores what he means by getting around outdoors.

One paraplegic pal, a Yellowstone park ranger, is pictured pulling himself up a cliff face in a wheelchair; another friend is seen swooshing down a ski slope, “sit-skiing” on a mono-ski outfitted with a seat and poles; then there’s a woman photographed sky diving in a customized sling.

Not long ago, Hotchkiss tried out a friend’s new invention, a high-tech “dirt chair,” speeding down a nearby mountainside at more than 20 m.p.h. “It handled like a Porsche,” he says.

Revolution for Disabled


The point is made: The dark ages of disabilities are past. Over the last five years, a revolution in both hand-powered outdoor vehicles and the standard wheelchair has occurred. And for about 25 million people around the globe who Hotchkiss estimates need wheelchairs, “it has made more difference than you can ever imagine.”

Banished from the lives of most “independent travelers” are the old hospital chairs, or “junkers,” as Hotchkiss dubs them. Designed in two standard sizes for male adults, they were too wide, too heavy, too hard to roll. And they were as appropriate to street use, Hotchkiss says, “as ox carts on a freeway.”

Today, a proliferation of small companies, mainly in San Francisco and Los Angeles, is producing custom “sports chairs” that are 20 pounds lighter, slimmer and easy to handle.

Still, this has not solved the problems of disabled people in developing countries, where, according to Hotchkiss, 10 million people (not counting Central and South America, where there are no figures), or close to half the world’s disabled population, need wheelchairs and have no way of getting them.

Hotchkiss became aware of the situation in 1980 when, at a friend’s request, he went to Nicaragua to help a group of disabled mechanics. Most of the country’s disabled people were sharing four and five to a wheelchair, and many of the chairs were broken.

Hotchkiss made a sample chair in a Managua blacksmith’s shop, and a year later, with money from the U.S. Agency for International Development and other nonprofit funding, he helped the mechanics set up their own cottage industry.

In 1984, he came out with his standard chair, christened the “Torbellino,” or “Whirlwind,” by mechanics in a Peruvian chair-building shop. Designed for simple manufacture and repair, it has half the pieces of other wheelchairs, is made out of cheap local steel, not the high-tensile bicycle tubing employed in the States, and is being produced in shops outfitted with about $3,000 worth of hand-powered equipment, as compared to U.S. factories with about $300,000 in automated machinery.

To accomplish this sort of streamlining, Hotchkiss used his ingenuity to, in a sense, re-invent the wheel. For instance, to bend steel tubing, he bypassed precision equipment costing thousands of dollars by envisioning a simple semi-circle of wood nailed to a plywood board and bending the tubes around it by hand.


The result has been chairs that cost from $150 to $200--including a profit for the mechanics--versus about $800 in the States. In the last eight years, Hotchkiss tapped diverse sources of income to help set up shops in countries ranging from Latin and South America to Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka, and has requests for assisting shop start-ups in a host of other nations including India and the Soviet Union.

But Hotchkiss has always been an inveterate tinkerer. A high school bicycle racer, he built a 45-speed bike, which still hangs from a backroom ceiling along with other of his concoctions, including a couple of multipositional chairs that never really worked, he says, and a stair-climber invented a year after his accident, which enabled him to crawl up to his girlfriend’s third-floor dorm room.

Desired Profession

Ironically, Hotchkiss was fixed on his career long before his injury, his application form to Oberlin already showing rehabilitation engineering as his desired profession.

His accident, breaking his second thoracic vertebra, reinforced his desire to implement progress in the field.

“Below my shoulders my muscles aren’t well connected to my brain,” he explains. “So they put braces on me that went from the bottom of my feet to the top of my shoulders and gave me a couple of Canadian crutches, the kind with cuffs on them. I was like a swinging telephone pole, walking with that thing.”

Two weeks into a six-week training program, he quit.

“It really didn’t make sense to me. The therapists didn’t know how to do what I needed to learn, like using public bathrooms. When there were no accessible bathrooms, I needed to know how to narrow my chair and get in there and do a 180-degree transfer. All of that stuff they said was impossible.”

The first weekend out of the hospital Hotchkiss was at a mechanic’s shop with his expensive, albeit clumsy, chair. “We just started sawing the chair up,” he says. By switching the socket for the removable armrest from the side to the rear, he narrowed the chair a precious two inches, enabling him to push himself along from the shoulders instead of “chicken-winging.” Later the Veterans Administration adopted the design for use in Vietnam vets’ wheelchairs.

Nevertheless, his injury caused Hotchkiss to detour his chosen profession for awhile. “I wanted to prove myself in the real world first,” he said. For more than a decade he worked for Ralph Nader in Washington, founding the Center for Concerned Engineering and co-authoring “The Lemon Book: What to Do About Your Bad Car.”

One fall day in 1975, while visiting Berkeley, Hotchkiss was hitchhiking in his wheelchair along Ashby Avenue when Kaplan’s green Dodge Dart pulled over to the curb.

Better Life

“In those days there was no way to get around town,” Hotchkiss recalls. “Cabs wouldn’t stop; buses weren’t accessible. She picked me up, and eventually took me home.” Since then the couple has worked for civil rights and a better life for people with disabilities. Kaplan, also a member of the “Nader Raider” team, founded the Disability Rights Center, advocating better marketing of wheelchairs. She now works in legal rights for disabled people and advises Sen. Milton Marks (D-San Francisco) on legislation affecting disabled parents.

Two years ago, Hotchkiss co-founded a rehabilitation engineering program at San Francisco State University, the first of a half-dozen college programs nationwide that give engineering students specialized training and counseling to work in the field of disabilities.

Together they belong to a host of organizations, including the Berkeley-based Center for Independent Living, which spearheads the disability rights movement, and Through the Looking Glass, which provides information and equipment for disabled parents.

The 1974 Access to Education Act, requiring mainstreaming of disabled children into public rather than institutional schools, has been the single most significant measure in normalizing the lives of incapacitated people, Hotchkiss says. “I don’t know how to tell anybody how important that is. The next generation of disabled people is going to have so many fewer hang-ups. Non-disabled people will take disability much more for granted.”

‘Minor Inconveniences’

Hotchkiss waves away any question of awkwardness in his and Kaplan’s life. Their conditions are “minor inconveniences” compared to other people’s problems, he says. The best man at their wedding, for instance, has cerebral palsy, and Hotchkiss travels as his attendant on lobbying trips to Washington.

Their parents worried, of course, that they weren’t exactly marrying mates that would make life easier for them, and raising a child, Hotchkiss allows, is about 20% more difficult than it normally would have been.

When Desmond started to walk, Kaplan, who broke a cervical vertebra in her accident and at times gets around with a cane, “couldn’t catch him for anything,” he says.

When he sees stairs, Desmond is fond of scampering up and grinning cockily at his parents. In town, he runs ahead to spot ramps for them.

“He asks me how come I can’t run,” Hotchkiss says. “I explain it. But he’s cool.”

The hardest thing perhaps was not being able to frolic with Desmond. When he was smaller, Hotchkiss would pull him up into his lap by his overall suspenders; but, he says, “I rarely got down on the floor with our little boy when he was an infant, because it was so hard to get back up.”

Which gets back to the matter of all that money from the MacArthur award.

Hotchkiss plans to pull out those Rube Goldberg inventions in the backroom and make a multipurpose chair that works as low as a crouch on the floor and as high as standing up, and maybe that climbs stairs to boot.

He also will expand and tighten the international network of wheelchair shops and publish a newsletter to facilitate the exchange of information.

Then there will be a wheelchair for plowing snow and for going to the beach. “There are still a lot of breakthroughs to be made,” he says, adding later, “Independence is so marginal.”

The Americans With Disabilities Act, which is before Congress, would provide sweeping civil rights legislation, but already attitudes have changed.

“You come zooming out and hop in a cab,” Hotchkiss says of his business routine. Even when the initial reaction is shock, he notes, “it quickly turns to pleasure.”