Ivy Tech Team Building Upright Wheelchair

EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Austin Frazier likes to fix things.

When Frazier got his driver’s license at 18, his “old” truck often broke down. Frazier, now 22, didn’t want to spend a fortune to constantly fix it, so he decided to learn how to do it himself.

He loves the work, but having spina bifida — a birth defect that prevents the spinal cord from fully developing — makes it difficult to walk long distances or stand to work on car alignments or tires while the vehicle is on a lift.

But that’s about to change.

Soon, the Ivy Tech Community College Southwest automotive student will be able to do more automotive and welding work with a custom-made, electric stand-up wheelchair. The chair is being built by other Ivy Tech students and instructors.

When Frazier heard a welding professor wanted to gather a team to build the chair, he said it took a while to believe.

“I was kind of shocked,” he said. “Like a deer in head lights.”

Once the base was complete, it finally sunk in.

John Durbin, assistant professor in welding and the school’s industrial technology program chair, found a video of a stand-up wheelchair built by people at a North Dakota school. He reached out to the school, and Donna Zimmerman, associate professor technology and program chair for advanced automation and robotics technology, said officials there shared drawings.


The original plan, Zimmerman said, was to build a pneumatic lift on a manually operated wheelchair. After an electronic scooter donation in November from Deborah and Jerry Bourassa, plans changed.

“We know how important it is for students to get hands-on experience. We’re taking the entire bottom of it so he’ll have a motorized chair,” Zimmerman said. “Then we’ll replace the top with the lift mechanism.”

About 35 students from robotics, welding and automotive classes, as well as some instructors, are working together to build the chair. This is the first of its kind to be built at Ivy Tech.

Zimmerman said robotics classes worked on design, welding students took the lead in construction and automotive students are looking at controls to make sure everything works together.

“Students are coming in on their own time, which is unheard of, but they’re thrilled to be working on this,” Zimmerman said.

Jonathan Walker, an Ivy Tech adjunct faculty member, lab technician and welding student, was in a motorcycle accident at 15 years old and spent 6-8 months in a wheelchair. During that time, he rebuilt the motorcycle he wrecked, and learned quickly you need to stand to do a lot of the work.

Walker didn’t hesitate to help with this project. He said building the chair involves stripping it down to the bare chassis, cutting it in half, and fabricating a box to hold not only the batteries but the actuators for the lift mechanism on the chair.

“This will have knee braces and harnesses on it, so when (Frazier) stands up he will actually physically be able to bend over and get under the hood of a car and work on something,” Walker said.

The goal is to build a chair that still fits in regular-sized doorways, Walker said, because they don’t want to hinder his mobility any further.


The labor and most of the parts were donated, Zimmerman said. Parts they had to purchase were bought by the robotics club and the Ivy Tech Foundation.

“When you see Austin, he works really hard to do the same job everybody else does in the automotive shop and he’s been very creative about doing that,” Zimmerman said. “But it makes it so much harder for him. When he’s working that hard to try to make this career for himself, it’s rather inspiring and makes all of us want to do what we can to help him achieve that.”

Frazier, a Princeton, Indiana native, is scheduled to graduate in May with an associate degree in automotive technology. The goal is to complete the chair so he can stand to receive his diploma.

“I had never touched a drill before class,” he said. “But going into the automotive field, all of the instructors are really encouraging and helped me out to learn the tools.”

After graduation, he plans to return to Ivy Tech to get a second associate degree in welding.

Frazier has “great” upper body strength to do the work, he said. He just needs help standing.

“I go on rants working on cars because I’m standing way too long,” he said.

It’s been difficult working with so many people in the project, Walker said, but he likes a challenge.
“We’re almost kind of reinventing the wheel and creating a custom product for a specific person,” said Ryan Finney, advanced automation and robotics technology student.

Erica Lopez, 20, said she’s gained a lot of experience from working on the chair. She’s working toward an associate degree in advanced automation and robotics technology.

“I learned how to use a metal grinder to grid things and smooth out edges,” she said. “And I wouldn’t have necessarily had the chance to use the plasma cutter.”


Lopez said the back of the chair needed to be modified to be heavier.
“So if he stands, he can do so and lean forward without the chair tipping,” she said.
“My biggest fear for him is once we build this and he stands up and he’s vertical, is him tipping over,” Walker said. “He doesn’t have legs to side step and catch himself. That would be more detrimental to him than anything I can think of.”

But Frazier doesn’t let spina bifida slow him down. In the future, he hopes to work at a car dealership, either doing welding or automotive work.

His motto: “No excuses.”

“Otherwise, you can talk yourself down, and I don’t do that,” he said. “I tell myself I’m going to do something and I do it. I ask for help along the way if needed, and I get it done.”

Frazier credits his best friend, Lee Mortis, with being an inspiration. He said Mortis has a seeing disability.

“I always think if he can do a job and have one,” Frazier said, “I can too.”

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