UA Engineering Students Helping Physically Challenged ‘Buckle Up’

  • March 20th, 2000

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Buckling a seat belt is a seemingly simple task, but for Tuscaloosa resident James Dockery, who is paralyzed from the waist down, it is simply frustrating.

So, a class of University of Alabama engineering seniors is using their technical skills to make seat belts easier to buckle for those with limited hand movement and other physical challenges.

Although Dockery now drives a vehicle that has been specially designed to meet most of his needs, he still has difficulty with the standard seat belt in his van.

“My seat is raised 6 inches above factory standard so it’s hard to get the seat belt around me. Since my seat is raised the buckle is wedged between the seat and the console, so it’s also a struggle to get it buckled,” he said.

As part of UA’s mechanical engineering design clinic, the students are combining all they have learned during their undergraduate years to make life a little better for clients, like Dockery, who cannot use the pre-existing seat belts in their vehicles.

Dr. Beth Todd, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering who teaches the class, said this design and build project is unique.

“This class provides the first opportunity for the students to take knowledge from a number of other courses and combine it to solve a problem,” Todd said.

There are 21 students working with two clients in this year’s class. The course was integrated into UA’s engineering curriculum in 1978 to provide students with realistic experience in the engineering field.

Todd said this course requires students to combine their technical engineering skills with other professional skills, preparing them for real-world job experiences.

According to Chad Kendrick of Jasper, working with a client personalized the project.

“This wasn’t like most assignments. We had clients to give us personal feedback,” Kendrick said. “Usually your motivation is getting an A in the class and pleasing your professor, but in this project we wanted to do well so we could help our client.”

The solution built by Kendrick’s group consists of two pieces. One piece is a part ordered from General Motors that extends the buckle and allows Dockery to reach it.

“Even though my group didn’t have to design and build the piece from GM, a big part of engineering is finding objects that have already been developed and adapting them to meet your needs,” Kendrick said. “Being able to do this also helps when you have to work within a budget.”

The second piece is attached to the headrest allowing the seat belt to be in a position that is easy for Dockery to access.

“For this piece we took measurements of the headrest, the seat belt and where the door closed, then used a computer program to design it,” Kendrick said. “Once we had it designed, we worked with the machine shop to build it and then we installed it on the headrest.”

In 1837, The University of Alabama became the first university in the state to offer engineering classes and was one of the first five in the nation to do so. Today, the College of Engineering has about 1,800 students and more than 90 faculty. It has been fully accredited since accreditation standards were implemented in the 1930s.


Dr. Beth Todd, 205/348-1623 James Dockery, 205/758-6218 Chad Kendrick, 205/758-7286


Jacque Cordle, Engineering Student Writer, 205/348-3051Chris Bryant, 205/348-8323Cathy Andreen, 205/348-8322

The University of Alabama, part of The University of Alabama System, is the state’s flagship university. UA shapes a better world through its teaching, research and service. With a global reputation for excellence, UA provides an inclusive, forward-thinking environment and nearly 200 degree programs on a beautiful, student-centered campus. A leader in cutting-edge research, UA advances discovery, creative inquiry and knowledge through more than 30 research centers. As the state’s largest higher education institution, UA drives economic growth in Alabama and beyond.