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Franklin Butts

Department of Industrial and Graphic Design graduate and employee
College of Architecture, Design and Construction

Franklin Butts was an airplane mechanic who was restoring an old truck. On June 8, 1999, Franklin was involved in an automobile accident that left him a C-6 quadriplegic and his truck mangled. The injury to his sixth cervical vertebrae meant that he had some use of his arms. After learning to write and draw with two hands and to peck on a keyboard with a fingertip on each hand, Franklin went back to school at Southern Union State Community College and took drafting and design technology courses. He had to learn two things: first, what the instructor was teaching; and second, how to do it with his non-working hands. He graduated as the 2005 Technical Student of the Year.

Franklin then started school at Auburn University and earned an undergraduate degree in industrial design. He pursued his master's degree and graduated in 2009 with a 3.83 GPA. While in the industrial design master's program, he developed a power assist for manual wheelchair users as his thesis topic. He also designed and built his own fully accessible home, while he was working on his master's. He began working with Auburn's Office of Technology Transfer in 2008 to get a provisional patent for his power assist design. After significant effort and personal expense, Franklin was awarded a full U.S. Patent in April 2013—Patent #8,388,010.

Currently, Franklin works in the industrial design shop. Always busy and involved, Franklin designed the graphic for Auburn's wheelchair basketball team, and he has recently started his own peanut roasting business.

1. Why did you choose the Auburn industrial design program?

While I was attending Southern Union, a visiting speaker suggested that I come to Auburn to design products for the disabled. I didn't have any idea what industrial designers did, but I came to Wallace Hall and took a tour with Clark Lundell and saw the amazing things the students designed. I realized then that I wanted to be in product design.

2. What inspired your idea for the power assist for manual wheelchair users?

When I got to Auburn I had a problem getting around campus: I either had to push my wheelchair where I needed to go or drive my van and try to find a van accessible spot to park. Sometimes, it would be easier to push my wheelchair. I then looked online for something that would attach to my wheelchair because I like being in my wheelchair, and I didn't want a power chair or scooter. After looking I found little to nothing so, being an industrial design student, I decided that would be my master's project. Its design is to help manual wheelchair users get around in an outdoor environment such as theme parks, zoos, campuses and urban environments without having to wear out their arms and shoulders. Since I have been using it, it has greatly increased my quality of life and my social circle. I can go and do more things with it than I would dare try to do without it.

3. What sort of help did Auburn provide in its development?

Professors Tsai Lu Liu and Chris Arnold helped me with my thesis topic. The industrial design shop supervisor, David Gowan, helped me build and work on technical issues. I would not have two working prototypes without his help. Auburn's Office of Technology Transfer helped me get my provisional patents, and I pursued the full patent myself.

4. In what ways have you been involved with Auburn's disability organizations?

I've been involved in a lot of different ways. When I first came to Auburn I was introduced to what is now the Office of Accessibility. They were the ones who made sure that Wallace Hall was accessible and that I was accommodated. Since then, I've gotten involved with the accessible workout program that I go to three days a week. It has helped me with my endurance. I'm one of the first members of the Auburn Adaptive Organization, and I also designed the logo for it. I've taken part in fundraisers and events for wheelchair basketball through the organization.

I've also worked as a liaison between the Center for Disability Research and Service and its collaboration with the Department of Industrial and Graphic Design and the Department of Special Education, Counseling and Rehabilitation. They work with clients with disabilities to generate design solutions for assistive technologies that help with everyday life. I also helped a kinesiology student with her cutting-edge research about spinal cord injury. I was her primary subject to help get her research started.

Often I get to speak to classes about my disability and how I deal with it - how I've overcome the challenges I've faced. I was even invited to be a panel speaker by the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services at their yearly convention. I told my story to more than 700 people.

I've also enjoyed volunteering for Engineering's Baja event the last three times that it has been in Auburn. I line up the cars, check safety procedures and work in the hot pits on race day.

5. Would you encourage students with disabilities to come to Auburn?

Yes, I would. Since I've been at Auburn, I've seen a lot of disability changes that make the campus more accessible. The Office of Accessibility will help with anything students need, and the faculty and staff are both supportive and accommodating.

June 10, 2013