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Article of Interest - Assistive Technology (AT)

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Bridges4Kids LogoHe’s Driven to Help Others
by Richard S. Chang, April 18, 2004, Parade Magazine
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As a child growing up in Michigan, Gary Talbot used to sit on the curb in front of his house and, without looking, try to guess the models of passing cars by the sounds of their exhausts. Talbot’s childhood dream was to open a car dealership, and he eventually became a Honda specialist in the mountains of Colorado.

Then, late one night in 1980, his life changed: He fell asleep at the wheel and flipped his car. Talbot, then 24, was paralyzed from the waist down.

“It was the first time I had the car on the road, and the engine’s just purring like a kitten upside down,” recalls Talbot, revealing the sense of humor that has become his trademark. “And I’m laying in there laughing and thinking, ‘Man, I do good work.’”

These days, Talbot, a vehicle systems engineer, is doing a tremendous amount of good work. After struggling to achieve his career ambitions, he is altering the way the automotive industry looks at building vehicles for the disabled.

“The easier it is for the disabled to get in and out of a vehicle, the more they’ll go out.”

Following the accident, Talbot wanted to continue working as a mechanic but returned to Michigan to be closer to family and friends. “No one would allow me to fill out an application,” he says, “so I switched gears from trying to find a job to trying to start a business.”

A year later, at 25, Talbot opened a repair shop outside Ann Arbor. He built custom jigs out of planks of wood to prop up cars at various angles so that he could work from his wheelchair. Six years later, however, a life-threatening blood infection forced him to close his successful shop. Unsure of his next move, Talbot enrolled in a community college. He spent three and a half years juggling his classwork with trips to the hospital before being accepted by the University of Michigan’s prestigious mechanical engineering program.

His degree led to a job at General Motors’ engineering department in Warren, Mich., and in 2000 Talbot joined the Mobility Center, which he jokingly calls his “sandbox.” In this corner of the research-and-development garage, Talbot and his team are changing the automotive landscape.

There are more than 54 million disabled people in the U.S. and an additional 76 million Americans over the age of 50. “Gary has single-handedly educated this company about the strong demand for empowerment of his peer group out there in the world,” says GM Vice President John Smith.

At the “sandbox,” two rows of wheelchairs and motorized scooters sit against a brick wall next to a workbench, a welding station curtained by clear vinyl and a silver minivan. From his own wheelchair, Talbot, 48, tests a hoist that can lift a scooter into the back of a minivan. He does this effortlessly with one hand, which is a critical characteristic. “The easier it is for disabled people to get in and out of a vehicle,” he says, “the more they’ll go out.”

Although other car manufacturers such as Toyota and Ford have mobility departments, Talbot’s pivoting and articulating seat base became the first mobility accessory to reach a major auto dealership when it hit showrooms last October. Along with the other designs on his drawing board—such as car doors that open wider—it will improve the quality of life for millions.

“He wants to do good for people,” says his wife, Pam. “Just last weekend he was talking to a lady about her problems and what they could do to modify her van. He called her on his weekend off, like he typically does. They spoke for hours, and she’s just one of many.”

Recently, Talbot was assigned to a select group of executives who spearhead the design of future vehicles. He hopes to integrate the concerns of the disabled and elderly into the earliest stages of design. “I’m just thinking about the lives we’ll touch—all the people who will be able to get out and do things that otherwise would be a whole lot more difficult,” he says. “To me, that’s the rewarding part.”

    

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