Working It -- Kenny Kent Toyota's Austin Frazier takes care of business, assisted by his custom-built wheelchair.
Austin Frazier always enjoyed tinkering on his 2002 Camry, and always dreamed of working at Toyota.
But he wasn’t sure that would ever be possible. Frazier has spina bifida, a birth defect where the spinal cord fails to develop properly. Because he’s unable to walk long distances without the use of crutches, Frazier knew that a career as an automotive technician would be difficult.
Shortly before graduating with an associate’s degree from Ivy Tech Community College, Frazier was offered a summer internship as a lube and tire technician at Kenny Kent Toyota in Evansville, Indiana. Fixed Operations Director Joe Fredrich says he was impressed with Frazier right from the start and met with Butch Hancock, senior managing partner of the Kenny Kent operations, on the process to onboard Austin.
“Austin is real comfortable with his disability,” Fredrich says. “He told me he didn’t want to be behind a desk. He wanted to be out there getting his hands dirty.”
Adds Frazier: “When Joe walked into my class and asked me if I wanted a job, my jaw dropped. He said he’d never met anyone like me. I take challenges and try to overcome them.”
Frazier knew he’d need to use his manual wheelchair to cover the long distances between the parts department and the express maintenance service bay, which operates like a well-orchestrated pit crew.
It wasn’t long before Jonathan Walker, an Ivy Tech instructor, told Frazier about a YouTube video where a paralyzed welder created a standing chair so he could continue to work. Walker, who had limited mobility for six months after a motorcycle accident, said he wanted to build one for Frazier.
“It was the perfect storm of having all these people with unique perspectives and skill sets who could make it happen,” Fredrich says.
“We couldn’t have done it without the support of John Durbin (welding program chair) and Donna Zimmerman (robotics program chair) at Ivy Tech,” says Fredrich. Toyota’s Indiana manufacturing plant, which is located about 15 miles away, also got involved by donating some of the parts.
Two semesters later, thanks to nearly three dozen robotics, welding and automotive students, and countless others, Frazier had his new motorized standing chair. He’s even named it Charlene, after his grandmother who believed “you can be what you want to be.”
“This was truly a service learning project and a great team effort by everybody,” says Chris Kaufman, automotive program chair for Ivy Tech’s Evansville campus.
One of the Guys -- Austin Frazier joins his fellow technicians at Kenny Kent Toyota for a team photo.
Now Frazier’s changing tires, loosening lug nuts, replacing 02
sensors and working alongside his team members.
“I’m much faster now,” he says. “At TXM (Toyota Express Maintenance) we have to get cars in and out, and it’s easier for me to use the standing chair to carry custom tires. It’s also way easier for my comrades because they can set the lift at a height that makes it easier for them to walk around the vehicle.”
Fredrich says Frazier has good upper body strength, but it was difficult to capitalize on that in a seated position.
“The standing chair has absolutely been a game changer for Austin,” he says. “His dedication is an inspiration to us all.”
The chair continues to be a work in progress as issues like short battery life and new prototypes are developed. There may even be a patent in the works.
At the end of the day, “Frazier’s dedication and can-do attitude reflects the spirit of the shop, with the teams of technicians striving to provide award-winning service to every customer,” says Hancock.
“I’m hoping to work my way up and be the best I can be.”
By Karen Nielsen