Tooling Around

When the inspector showed up to make sure Harrold Andresen's new enterprise complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act, he learned one of Andresen's clients--a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic--wanted to learn to weld with his mouth.

"Impossible," most people would say. He'd be incinerated.

"No problem," Andresen says.

In a large metal building, remarkably clean for what was once a repair shop, Andresen walks through an ocean of donated tables, saws, shelves and tools to show off a low steel worktable.

"If he wears the welding jacket backwards and slides his wheelchair under this table," Andresen says, "he can be completely protected from the sparks."

For 31 years, Andresen has run Mechanical Excellence, a shop in Duncanville that does automotive repairs and antique vehicle restoration. He's gained a reputation as the mechanic to see when all the others have failed. If Andresen can't find the right part, he'll make one.

From the beginning, Andresen serviced the cars of several clients in wheelchairs, repairing chair lifts and making other modifications. Three years ago, Andresen decided he wanted to do more than work after hours and weekends helping a few handicapped people. He wanted to work with "machines that matter."

So Andresen created the "Innovation Institute." He downsized his automotive business from 15 service bays to three, then remodeled the rest of the space to create a school with welding equipment, saws, drill presses and other machine tools that have been modified to accommodate eight disabled students and any assistants they may need.

Rather than call the repair shop for help, Andresen wants his students to learn to do it themselves. He plans classes in robotics, welding, metal and wood fabrication, plus wheelchair and automotive repair and maintenance.

"This has never been done before," says Andresen, despite an "overwhelming need" for such training. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area alone, he says, there are about 5,000 paralyzed veterans.

"If you're in a wheelchair, you can't check the oil in your car engine," he says. "You have no real back-up system if your battery dies. Maybe your hand control is broken."

Matt Hambly, 32, of Plano, has had many wheelchairs that have broken down. Born without legs, Hambly doesn't need a lift on his truck; he's learned to get in and out of the pickup on his own. He also learned to change the oil and do other basic vehicle maintenance with the help of his father, a mechanic.

Hambly would love to work as a mechanic but says his father didn't want to teach him more advanced skills. "He was afraid if I got hurt, like if I was underneath the car, it could fall down on me," Hambly says.

Last August, Hambly started working with Andresen twice a week, doing metal grinding and other adaptations of tools. He's excited about the Innovation Institute. "Me and Harrold, if we put our heads together we can make things happen," Hambly says.

Andresen's background is mechanical engineering. "I was a D or F student who would win first prize in the science fair," he says. But Andresen has also been a volunteer with Wycliffe Bible Translators and worked two and a half years in an orphanage in Mexico. The institute combines his two passions: mechanics and helping people.

"I've been amazed at how much room for improvement there is with wheelchairs and adaptive equipment," Andresen says. "And I've been disappointed that, for the amount of money that adaptive aids cost, they could work a lot better." Andresen points out that an electric wheelchair can cost from $30,000 to $42,000 for someone with no use of their hands or arms.

Sympathetic donors have given the fledgling operation machine-shop tools and furniture. He and volunteers such as Hambly have been modifying the equipment as it comes in. "If you want to do anything in a shop, you have to use a vise," says Andresen. They cut off the legs from a steel table and gave it 400 pounds of concrete and steel ballast so that it wouldn't tip over. The vise was attached so that it extended from the table. One workbench telescopes up and down to fit wheelchairs of various sizes. To buy the bench would cost $2,500, Andresen says. They adapted one with a motorcycle jack for $75.

"The idea isn't to start cheap and then get high-dollar equipment," says Andresen. "It's to show the disabled community they can be creative and resourceful with the tools and equipment that's available. They can do things they didn't know were possible or couldn't afford. Rather than calling the machine shop with their idea, they can build it themselves. It's a matter of modifying tools."

An Innovation Institute advisor, Floyd Fisher, 54, is in a wheelchair as a result of polio. "I think it's a great idea," Fisher says. "I really need to learn to take care of my vehicle." He drives a 2003 Dodge Caravan with a lift on the side. He has friends who have tried to get modifications through their insurance, but the expense and endless paperwork make it hard to get the help they need. "Harrold starts right away," Fisher says.

One of Andresen's most important goals is encouraging his students to create simple adaptive devices that they can then make and sell. Many people in wheelchairs are unemployable, Andresen says. "Only a few can hold down a 40-hour-a-week job." By participating in a small business, they can work a few hours a week at the institute "instead of being in the house watching TV and getting pressure sores."

Andresen plans to have classes in small-scale manufacturing, how to do market research and getting a product to market. Students might figure out how to make a "fix-a-flat" product or a birdfeeder that could be used by the disabled. He sees another potential market that also might energize his future students: "fun" wheelchair accessories. "How about a pop-up umbrella to protect you from the rain?" Andresen says. "Or a fan to keep you cool?"

Though he's started mini-classes, the Innovation Institute is scheduled to open officially next fall. Andresen hopes to get donations of both tools and money. The facility must conform to the city code for schools; for an industrial area, it's a huge expense. Andresen estimates it will cost about $1 million to get the school equipped, teachers hired and to provide full scholarships for the students.

"Like most projects, it's three times more expensive than you think," Andresen says. "We need help."

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Glenna Whitley