Part man, part machine, all college graduate.

Austin Whitney has been paralyzed for years, thanks to a tragic car accident. But that didn’t stop him from walking across the stage at his college graduation, thanks to an exoskeleton designed by a group of mechanical engineers at his school.

Whitney graduated from UC Berkeley this weekend with a degree in History and Political Science, but nobody thought he’d be able to actually walk on the stage to receive his diploma. Up until now, Whitney has been confined to a wheelchair.

However, it turns out that that Whitney was working with a team of mechanical engineers at UC Berkeley (actually, four doctoral students and their professor) to develop an affordable exoskeleton that would allow wheelchair users to gain the ability to walk. Whitney himself has been involved the project since he arrived on campus in 2008; the exoskeleton is being named “Austin”.

The system was unveiled to the public, though, at his graduation. When Whitney took the stage, he was the last senior to have his name called:

As Whitney rolled onto the stage, the stadium grew quiet. Someone placed the walker in front of him and Whitney grasped the handles, pushed himself into a standing position and pressed a switch.

His right leg moved forward. Then his left. Whitney paused and steadied himself. With an audible click, his right leg took another step. Then his left. One more right. Another left. He was facing the chancellor, eye to eye.

The men shook hands as the audience erupted in cheers. And they hugged, as the announcer called out the final graduate’s name.

Similar systems tend to run for around $90,000, but this exoskeleton is expected to run for around $15,000 (which is comparable to the cost of a high-end powered wheelchair.

On a side note: The rope draped across Whitney’s shoulders is what’s called an “honors rope”, which is bestowed to students who earn a high grade point average; in every ceremony I’ve seen, the gold rope means that the person wearing it had graduated Summa Cum Laude.

Congratulations, Austin, for both graduating and undoubtedly giving a lot of people the hope of being able to walk again.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle

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