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

July 26, 1989|ELIZABETH VENANT | Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND — 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.

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