Finally, Mr. Tien Toan Nguyen shared more about the meanings
of shipment from Vietnam to Iraq. When the war broke out in Iraq in the middle
of April, 2003, and the U.S. were in Baghdad, via television we saw aircrafts,
bombs and the sound of the pittiful civilians, of the wounded soldiers, war
parties involved. I thought I must do something for Iraq. But the road from
Vietnam to the capital Bagdad was not easy. Sending by airway through Turkey Airline
was expensive so we decided to send by seaway, from Saigon port to Fao port, then moving to Bagdad, donating
to the disabled. Making the trip to the land of the "One Thousand and One
Nights", we wanted to start a humanitarian bridge from Vietnam to the
world, to somewhat redieve thr sorrow of handicapped people from the war.
Mr. Tien Toan Nguyen and his family
VIETNAM - WHEELS OF CHANGE
Vietnam is a country
in constant motion. Without a good set of wheels, it’s easy to get left behind.
That’s especially true for Vietnamese wheelchair riders like Quan Dien. He lost
his legs in the war with Cambodia in the early 1980s.
“I fell once,
because the ramp to the sidewalk was blocked,” he tells FRONTLINE/World reporter Marjorie McAfee. “I was going
too fast, and the wheelchair hit and I flew forward.”
Because the streets
of his neighborhood aren’t wheelchair friendly, Quan mostly stays home in his small
apartment. To make ends meet, he rents his back room workshop to another
wheelchair rider, Thanh Giang, who contracted polio as a child.
“Vietnam still has a
lot of shortcomings,” Thanh says. “They haven't yet been able to find a way to
improve things for disabled people. Usually, when they build things, they don't
think if it's convenient for anyone. So, disabled people put up with a lot
But a world away,
there’s a new wheelchair, and it’s making an impact.
“I can hit it hard,
and nothing happens,” says Ralf Hotchkiss, an engineering professor at San
Francisco State who’s been thinking about wheelchair design for a long time.
“The wheel’s axels
are very strong. You can come down a high curb, hit hard,” he demonstrates.
“Nothing fails. This wheel – there’s no way I can break it.”
paralyzed in a motorcycle accident 30 years ago, Hotchkiss started out just
trying to make a better wheelchair for his own use. But he ended up making a
bigger breakthrough with something he calls the RoughRider.
“It was necessary to
come up with the RoughRider because there was no other wheelchair that worked
well enough in all of the difficult situations in developing countries,” he
explains. “Everything you do you have to go long distances over rocky or sandy
or muddy roads.”
design ideas from around the world. The front wheel comes from a shopping cart
“Very flexible, very
light. Made out of auto tire retread rubber,” he says.
After years of
tinkering, Hotchkiss decided the RoughRider was ready for the rigors of the
developing world. In 2006, he approached a factory owner named Toan Nguyen to
talk about producing the wheelchairs in Vietnam.
“I saw that two
people from the opposite sides of an ocean could meet to make this wheelchair,”
Toan makes the
RoughRider using locally available materials and inexpensive labor. It’s
Hotchkiss’ visions that the RoughRider should be easy and cheap to make any
place in the world. His associate, Marc Krizack, travels to Vietnam to check in
with Toan whenever he can.
“It’s been how long,
one year since I was here?” he says as he greets Toan.
He’s brought the
latest innovation from San Francisco with him, a design modification that will
allow for a smaller-sized wheelchair. As always, there’s no charge for design.
Hotchkiss’ technologies are open source. And his Whirlwind Wheelchair Network
also helps raise money from Western foundations to help the $175 cost of the
don’t make the market – they can’t afford to buy their own wheelchairs,” says
Krizack. “So what Whirlwind does is not only just transfer the technology to
factories like Kien Tuong, but we also market the chairs. We try to raise the
money so they can actually sell the chairs.
help, Toan regularly donates his RoughRiders to those most in need. McAfee
finds him at a disabled athletes tournament giving away chairs to the
participants, including Thanh Giang, the man from Quan’s workshop.
“When it comes to
competing, the wheelchair is very comfortable,” Thanh says. “It doesn’t block
my arm movement.”
After the game,
Thanh takes a ride through the neighborhood. He says it’s very sturdy and
stable. Thanh’s landlord and friend, Quan, is more skeptical. He thinks his old
chair suits him better.
“For me to get up in
this chair, it’s very easy,” he says about his old chair. “Getting in and out
of the RoughRider is impossible. I tried it. I’m not strong enough to push
myself up from the ground with my hands.”
“The first rule of
the wheelchair provision is ‘Do no harm,’” says Klizack. “You can give someone
a wheelchair and it can be a very inappropriate wheelchair. It'd be like, you
know, giving somebody a little sports car. Even if it’s the best Mercedes Benz
sports car in the world, if the person lives in Alaska in the wintertime,
they’re never going be able to use that.”
Klizack heard about
Quan’s concerns, so he decides to pay him a visit, bringing Toan along as well.
It out Quan got his first chair from Toan more than 20 years ago.
“Meeting again, it’s
very emotional,” Toan says.
Quan explains that
the RoughRider’s footrests are of no use to him, as he has lost his legs.
Klizack says that the wheelchair is designed to be easily modified. Within
minutes, they’ve raised the footrests to create a step. And they find another
benefit – the footrests also can be used to carry groceries and the like. Quan
decides to keep the chair after all.
For Hotchkiss, it’s
been the same story all over the world. He’s brought the RoughRider to dozens
of countries, including Mexico, Iraq and South Africa through partnerships with
several factories abroad.
“I would like to see
Whirlwind Wheelchair become unnecessary as soon as possible,” Hotchkiss says.
“I would like to help to develop a self-sustaining competitive industry of
wheelchair building all over the world. Once the marketplace is populated,
hopefully by then there will be so many people working on and inventing
wheelchairs, making wheelchairs better than ever, that maybe in 10, 20, 30
years we won't even recognize today's chairs. They'll be history.”