Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views, Issue no. 7 March-April 2001


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Whirlwind Women's Wheelchair Building Project in Uganda:
Creating Employment Opportunities for Women with Disabilities


Presented at the Rehabilitation International Congress, Rio de Janeiro, August 25, 2000

Project History
Since 1997, Whirlwind Women, a women's wheelchair-building project based at the San Francisco State University in San Francisco, California, U.S.A. has been collaborating with disabled Ugandan women to found an independent women-run wheelchair production workshop manufacturing the Whirlwind wheelchair.

Whirlwind Women is a project of Whirlwind Wheelchair International (WWI), a not-for-profit organization established to promote the social and economic integration of people with disabilities worldwide by teaching them to enhance their own and others' mobility and gain economic independence. WWI trains people with disabilities in developing countries to build strong, all-terrain wheelchairs made from locally available materials and costing about $200 (about one-tenth the cost of an imported chair).

Acquisition of an appropriate-technology wheelchair and the skills to build and maintain it can improve the quality of life of a wheelchair rider immeasurably. WWI helps these new technicians as they work to establish self-sufficient production workshops, and links them through the global Whirlwind Network of wheelchair designers, builders and riders so that participants from 25 countries can share solutions to design and local environmental challenges. By teaching people with disabilities to build the Whirlwind wheelchair, WWI also teaches them skills they can use to earn a living.

Since 1980, WWI has trained over 200 mechanics in 42 countries worldwide. However, while women with disabilities have been represented among these mechanics, their contributions have not led to their on-going acceptance as day-to-day paid labor in wheelchair workshops. Women continue to be discouraged from participation in wheelchair-building by the presumption that metalwork is the domain of men. Whirlwind Women was founded to counter such stereotypical thinking and to help maximize women's participation in all aspects of the wheelchair industry.

First contacts with Ugandan women in 1995
Whirlwind Women's initial contacts with Ugandan disabled women were made at the 1995 Fourth World Conference in Beijing, China. Whirlwind Women's first project was an intensive training in basic tool use for three Ugandan and three Kenyan women in Kenya in 1997. Since then, Whirlwind Women has worked with Kenyan Peninah Mutinda to found the world's first women-run Whirlwind production shop. We provide ongoing technical training, mentoring and support to the Ugandan women as they work to establish Mobility Appliances by Disabled Women Entrepreneurs (MADE), a wheelchair workshop in Kampala, Uganda. Most recently, we trained disabled Mexican women in basic tool use and fundamentals of Whirlwind production.

Why did we choose Uganda?
In Uganda, approximately 200,000 people need wheelchairs. Only one person in 1000 has a wheelchair. Although the urgent need for wheeled mobility devices is by no means unique to Uganda, the Ugandan political context is particularly supportive to initiatives on behalf of people with disabilities. After decades of oppressive dictatorship that ended thousands of lives and destroyed much of the country's infrastructure, Uganda is experiencing a major societal revitalization.

Under the 1995 Constitution, Ugandans with disabilities are guaranteed political representation at every level of society from village through the national Parliament. In addition, the Constitution mandates that at least one-third of Parliamentary representatives be women. As is obvious from the Constitution, Uganda has a large and active disability rights movement. In addition to the support of the national government, the disabled women who founded MADE enjoy support from a number of grassroots disability organizations. However, the economically challenged Ugandan government has no funds available to back up its political support for MADE, and this has resulted in the project being dependent upon funding sources outside of Uganda.

Wheelchair-building-a good economic opportunity?
Considered purely as an employment initiative for women, wheelchair-building requires the investment of a great deal of time and significant funding, and directly benefits relatively few women. It has taken about two years of training for the MADE staff to be able to produce enough wheelchairs to pay their salaries and expenses. Outfitting a new shop with tools, jigs and fixtures, and supplies and materials can cost $10,000 to 15,000 U.S.; technical training and training stipends for the new technicians increase the budget significantly. For the Uganda project, the United Nations and several private foundations provided Whirlwind Women with seed money for supplies and training.

The Ugandan women also raised money from private funders outside Uganda. Currently a partnership between the Kampala Rotary Club and Rotary International provides subsidies for wheelchair purchasers, who can rarely afford the Whirlwind's cost of approximately $250 U.S. Negotiating all these funding sources adds significantly to the effort required to establish the new business.

Today, MADE employs a regular staff of four (three women and one man), and has two women apprentices. However, viewed with a wider lens, participation in wheelchair-building has provided MADE founders Fatuma Achan and Sharifa Mirembe not only with a way to support themselves and their families, but an opportunity to control their own mobility and improve the mobility of many others. Women who enter this field do much more than earn a living: they become role models for other women with disabilities in a non-traditional field. As contributors to improved mobility for the local disability community, they are helping to shape that community and provide it with important resources; as women with disabilities, they contribute their particular perspectives and creativity to the evolving design of the Whirlwind wheelchair, a contribution which has an impact far beyond Uganda as design improvements are shared by shops around the world through the Whirlwind Network.

Factors influencing whether women will have success
The women who founded MADE had political experience as disability rights and women's movement activists, and business experience in running micro-enterprises as part of Uganda's informal economy. Both their political and business experiences were useful in preparing them to fight for acceptance as entrepreneurs in a field dominated by able-bodied men. Although they have had confidence in their own technical potential since initial training, they have had to prove to a variety of skeptical observers that they can build and sell wheelchairs. Even with their determination and self-confidence, it has been a hard battle, made harder by the fact that they are few in number.

Although MADE's founding members had micro-business experience, the new wheelchair workshop required understanding and implementing more complex business and administrative systems than those they knew. Personnel management, locating and buying supplies, maintaining tools and equipment, and selling the project to funders are all skills essential to the project's success. Experience or formal training in business administration would have eased the project's development. MADE staff have struggled to acquire these skills while at the same time learning to build wheelchairs efficiently and well.

Based on the experience of working with Fatuma Achan and Sharifa Mirembe as they struggled to get their business going (and our later experience with disabled women in Mexico), Whirlwind Women has determined that establishing women-run wheelchair businesses can be undertaken more effectively by organized groups of women with disabilities. A group can provide the structure, support and numbers necessary to give a groundbreaking new enterprise the solid start it needs. We are incorporating this learning into our new projects.

For more information, please contact:
Whirlwind Women of Whirlwind Wheelchair International
San Francisco State University School of Engineering
1600 Holloway Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94132 U.S.A.
Telephone: 415-338-6277
Fax: 415-338-1290
Email: whirl@sfsu.edu
Website: http://www.whirlwindwheelchair.org/

Editor's note:Whirlwind Women from its beginnings has had the benefit of superb leadership, first under the direction of Jenny Kern, Esq., who among other skills, was able to articulate its vision successfully to funders, and now under the new director, Alicia Contreras of Mexico, known internationally for her vitality and dedication to improving the situation of disabled women.


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