Paraplegic student stands tall and walks at commencement

When graduating senior Austin Whitney stood up from his wheelchair on stage at UC Berkeley’s commencement ceremony today, the crowd of 15,000 people at Edwards Stadium stood up with him – and roared.

Then Whitney, a paraplegic since 2007, used a controller switch on a walker to direct the exoskeleton strapped around his legs to move forward toward Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who was waiting to greet him. Step by step, followed by a team of researchers and cheered on by his family, Whitney reached Birgeneau, who gave him a congratulatory hug.

Video produced by Roxanne Makasdjian, Media Relations

“The second I pressed the button and stood up, I was flooded with a series of emotions,” said Whitney at a news conference following the ceremony. He described how the highs and lows of his life flashed through his mind as he was walking, from the instant his legs were paralyzed in a car accident four years ago, to the day he learned he got accepted into UC Berkeley. Today was a high.

“It was overpowering,” said Whitney, who was the last graduate in the procession. “I’ve stood in the [exoskeleton] machine a lot of times before, but I knew that it would be different up here [on stage], and it truly was.”

Also sharing the stage with Whitney were his parents, Jim and Lillian Whitney, and his younger sister, Laura. “This is the greatest day of my life,” said his mother.

Austin Whitney steps toward Commencement 2011

Photos © copyright Sarah Peet. For reprints, go here.

Whitney did it! See update here.

Whitney’s extraordinary walk has been in the works since last fall, when he connected with Homayoon Kazerooni, professor of mechanical engineering, and his team of researchers. The UC Berkeley engineers have been creating exoskeletons, a type of wearable robotic, to improve the mobility of paraplegics.

“Thanks to the work of Professor Homayoon Kazerooni and his team of graduate students, … people with permanent mobility disorders can regain mobility,” said Birgeneau in his address to the new graduates shortly after Whitney’s walk. “This achievement, as it was demonstrated to us today, embodies the public mission and indomitable spirit of Berkeley that is exemplified by our amazing students and our outstanding faculty dedicated to the advancement of knowledge for the betterment of humankind.”

Whitney said that he hopes today’s success will provide hope to other paraplegics that in their lifetime, they will see affordable machines that can help them regain some of their mobility.

It was a sentiment shared by Kazerooni, who stood alongside Birgeneau on stage as Whitney took his walk.

“This technology can be accessible to a large number of people, and that is our mission,” said Kazerooni. “We’re telling the community that this is possible. This is just the beginning of our work.”

Previous stories leading up to the walk: