Adapted toy car will allow kindergartener more freedom

Published 3:03 pm Tuesday, May 8, 2018

NORTH SHELBY – As the covering was pulled off a special surprise for Inverness Elementary School kindergarten student Bailey Harris, getting around the school was transformed from a test to a thrill.

Bailey was born with no arms and restricted use of his legs as a result of Roberts syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by limb abnormalities.

A specially adapted toy car presented to Bailey by University of Alabama engineering students on May 4 will allow him to move around the school independently and in style.

“We just wanted him to have some freedom,” said Bailey’s teacher, Debbie Slawinski, who saw disappointment on the child’s face as he watched a fellow student ride a bicycle down a hallway and wanted to offer him a means of mobility that would be less restrictive than the motorized wheelchair he was using. “He’s a special kid, and he works so hard and he just wanted something he could drive independently without an adult.”

Slawinski emailed a representative of the University of Alabama, unsure she would receive a response.

Instead, she was connected with Kenny Ricks, assistant head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, who advised the Astrobotics program that had built an adapted toy car for a Tuscaloosa student last year.

Michael Outlaw was one of the six UA students who worked on the car, and among the three who were on hand for the presentation.

Outlaw, a Briarwood Christian School graduate whose parents live just down the road from the school in Brook Highland, said the students visited Bailey at the school several times to determine his needs and measure him for the modifications.

The car is a replica Audi R8 GT Spyder, which can be purchased at toy stores. But the students incorporated a second battery for more power, converted the car from one-wheel drive to two-wheel drive and altered the steering system so that Bailey can both steer and accelerate using just one foot because of a joystick-like pedal.

“Each time we do one of these, the car has to be customized to the individual,” Ricks said.

The car also incorporates Bailey’s favorite color (blue) and number (7), along with other personalized touches.

The students performed the work over the course of several months around class time and other commitments.

“It’s been an amazing experience—applying things we’ve learned in class in a way that helps people,” Outlaw said. “He’s been really awesome to work with. He’s really sweet.”

The project was funded by the UA College of Engineering’s Electrical and Computer Engineeering Department.

All Inverness Elementary School kindergarten students were in attendance at the school’s field for the presentation, waving checkered flags, signs declaring “We love Bailey” and chanting “Go, Bailey, Go,” as he tried out his new wheels.

An Audi representative was also on hand, with a life-size R8, and an Audi hat and other “bling” for Bailey.

Bailey’s parents, grandmother and older brothers were also present.

His mother, Lula Harris, said Bailey knew something was coming but no specifics until the unveiling.

“He was like, ‘Mom, they built me a car!’” Harris said. “It’s a blessing.”