Paraplegic student walks to receive diploma

Fifteen thousand people cheered as graduating senior Austin Whitney walked up to UC Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau on Saturday for the university’s commencement ceremony.

Whitney has been a paraplegic since 2007, when he was paralyzed in a car accident. But he was able to stand up and leave his wheelchair at the event by using an exoskeleton strapped to his legs.

“The second I pressed the button and stood up, I was flooded with a series of emotions,” he says.

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

The walk took six months of planning by Whitney, professor of mechanical engineering Homayoon Kazerooni and his team of researchers.

“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.

“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 that the demonstration will give hope to other paraplegics, and that affordable exoskeletons could be available in the near future.

“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.”