Paralyzed UC Berkeley Student Walks Again at Graduation

University of California Berkeley student Austin Whitney was paralyzed in a drunk driving accident after his senior year of high school. As a college student majoring in history and political science, he helped a team of engineers at the school develop an exoskeleton designed to safely and affordably help wheelchair-bound people regain their ability to walk. On Saturday, the device was tested at Berkeley's graduation ceremonies, when he walked across the stage for the first time since his accident.

The team of scientists who worked to develop the technology that helped Austin walk say that they may be able to help many wheelchair-bound people regain the ability to walk within a few years and at an accessible price. Similar existing technology costs $90,000 or more. This model will set users back about $15,000, which is about the same price as some motorized wheelchairs.

The machine is named "Austin."

According to the San Francisco chronicle, all 15,000 people in attendance rose to their feet and cheered when Austin walked across the stage.

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.

Austin Whitney.

I'm not crying; you're crying.

Exoskeleton Lets UC Berkeley Grad Take A Huge Step [SF Chronicle]

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Any new technology that gives people with disabilities more options is great. But this story, and the overjoyed reactions, show how far we have to come in how we think about wheelchairs and disability. Wheelchairs are useful devices that give users freedom and independence. Using a wheelchair isn't a tragedy. Wheelchairs aren't prisons (as implied by the phrase "wheelchair-bound," which disability activists don't ever use). The technology in the video is neat, but it's also very slow and cumbersome compared to a wheelchair — yet people are crying like it's a miracle that this person is able to take a few steps like a normal person, because they see it as vastly superior to zipping along comfortably in a wheelchair.

I'm not judging the student or the engineers at all — working on new technology for people with disabilities is a wonderful thing, and he should be proud of his contribution to the research. I'm sure there are times when this technology is preferable to a wheelchair, when being upright is an advantage — and I'm sure there are people who will want to buy it. But I don't think people are crying because of his role in the research. They are crying because they view wheelchairs as awful and tragic, and because they see "walking again" as the most beautiful, miraculous thing that could ever happen to a person with a disability.