Running an operation from a wheelchair

By |  February 15, 2016

A number of people start their morning with a cup of coffee. John Robbins, general manager at Louisiana-based Webster Gravel and Asphalt, says he likes to start his morning watching the sunrise onsite at a crushing or paving project.

“I like taking beautiful pictures of the sunrise before heading to work on a project,” he says. “My whole family likes doing that. We’re always excited for the sun to come up before it’s rock ’n’ roll time for crushing.”

When it’s time to crush, Robbins maneuvers his way into the cab of a loader or crusher. Robbins is bound to a wheelchair most of the time because he has multiple sclerosis (MS), which attacks the central nervous system.

Despite his disability, Robbins tries to never miss a day of work. He says he finds unique, safe ways to get into machinery.

“Typically, I can get myself onto any kind of machine,” Robbins says. “If it’s a normal crushing day, I pull a truck up close to a machine and get in the cab. Or I can climb up using my arms. On tough days, I cheat and sit in the bucket of a loader to lift me up into the cab.”

Getting into machines is the hard part, but once he’s in, Robbins says he’s ready to crush or load for the whole day. One can’t tell Robbins is disabled once he’s operating a crusher, loader or track hoe. While he has limited use of his legs, Robbins figures out ways to move his feet or shift his body weight to operate the machines just like anyone else.

“He says he’s not special, but I tell him he is,” says Gerald Bauer, president of Eccofab.

Bauer met Robbins when delivering parts to Webster Gravel and Asphalt about three years ago.

“You don’t hear about many people in wheelchairs doing crusher jobs safely,” Bauer says. “He gets lifted up to a cab, gets in the seat and works all day. You almost have to be there to see him doing it.”

Because of his handicap, Robbins says he treats his work as a freedom.

“I’m fortunate I live in a country where I’m given a chance to work even though I have a handicap,” he says. “It might not be a level playing field, but it’s as close as I’m gonna get compared to other places in the world. I always stay committed and steadfast at my job.”

Life changer

Numbness in the leg, instability while walking and sudden pain were some of the sensations Robbins says he experienced when he was 18 – a few years before he was officially diagnosed with MS.

“Everything in me worked normal when I was growing up,” he says. “But in high school I seemed to start to have health problems I couldn’t explain.”

Cathy Toups, Robbins’ mother, says doctors were unsure what Robbins’ health issue was initially. Yet, as symptoms worsened over the years, Toups says her son’s pediatrician diagnosed him with transverse myelitis or MS.

Robbins says he realized he needed to seek immediate medical help when he woke up in excessive pain one night in 1996.

“I’m not kidding, I woke up and couldn’t feel anything in my legs anymore,” he says. “For some reason, I felt like I needed to use the restroom, but my bladder wouldn’t work that night either. That was the big uh-oh moment for me.”

Not long after that night, a specialist diagnosed Robbins with MS. As his MS symptoms worsened, Robbins says it took a toll on his pride initially. Even walking around a grocery store became a struggle, but he says he was resistant to using a wheelchair.

“I was stubborn,” Robbins says. “I realized I was limited in my abilities in 1999, and I would fight the symptoms at first. But I had to suck it up eventually and consider using a wheelchair.”

Robbins has worked for Webster Gravel and Asphalt on and off his whole life. The company, after all, is in his family.

After Robbins’ diagnosis, family members at the company expressed concerns about him paving and crushing over long hours in his condition. Around 2001, he opted to leave the family business to sell wheelchairs in Louisiana for a change of pace.

About four years later, Robbins received a phone call from Andrew Dickinson, his uncle and president of Webster Gravel and Asphalt. Dickinson needed help on a major paving project. Robbins didn’t hesitate to return to the family business.

Some family members worried about Robbins returning to work, but Robbins says his mother supported him as he returned. He adds that he wanted to take ownership within the family business.

“It’s like crushing is in my blood,” he says. “Selling wheelchairs was rewarding, but I couldn’t help but think about how much I loved big equipment and trucks.”

Crushing the stigma

As Robbins returned to Webster Gravel and Asphalt, his uncle wanted to integrate additional crushing opportunities into the business. With recycling emerging at the time, crushing became an opportunity to help the environment by reusing concrete rather than sending it to dump sites.

Robbins proposed the company purchase a new portable crusher to help with jobs and allow the company to expand into crushing. When members of the family attended ConExpo-Con/Agg in 2008, Robbins took the time to hunt for a portable crusher.

Despite being wheelchair bound and 6-ft., 6-in. tall, Robbins says he didn’t refrain from rushing toward various pieces of equipment at the show and climbing onto machines – not unlike a kid on a jungle gym.

“I didn’t let that stop me from climbing into the equipment,” he says.

Robbins says he was particularly drawn to the Rubble Master RM80 portable impact crusher at ConExpo-Con/Agg. He says the RM80 was the perfect size for most jobsites Webster Gravel and Asphalt serves.

While the market was down at the time and Robbins didn’t have the money saved to purchase the portable crusher, he says his mother helped him purchase the RM80 in 2009.

“I had some friends in the banking industry who were willing to help me finance a big crusher,” Toups says.

Once word spread to potential customers that Webster Gravel and Asphalt’s crusher was portable and capable of meeting state specifications for crushed rock used for roadwork, the company began to crush for businesses in Minden, Ruston, Shreveport and Tallulah, La.

“We were able to move to the site, set up, densify the rock and finally crush the rock into sizes needed for a particular client,” Robbins says.

Since purchasing the portable crusher, Robbins adds he’s persisted in advancing Webster Gravel and Asphalt’s contract crushing business.

“A lot of people give up, but he’s not giving up,” Toups says of her son. “He never let [MS] change his attitude toward life. He still works long hours – sometimes seven days a week – and he always does it safely.”

Eccofab’s Bauer says he’s impressed with Robbins’ ability to push past his handicap since returning to the business.

“He’s always highly active and always wanted to continue his grandpa’s legacy with the business.”

Despite the slow and steady progression of his MS, Robbins says he hopes he is still fortunate enough to work at Webster Gravel and Asphalt and operate equipment until he’s at least 60.

“I guess it’s strange to see someone like me determined to work on 70,000-lb. machines even though I can’t ambulate,” Robbins says. “But I wouldn’t be good at a job where I’m sitting in an office making bids or something. I plan to run equipment as long as I’m physically able. I want to be a viable part of this company.”

About multiple sclerosis (MS)

According to the National MS Society, multiple sclerosis (MS) is an unpredictable and often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain and between the brain and the body. The cause of the disease is unknown, but scientists believe the disease might be triggered by a combination of environmental and genetic factors.

Symptoms of MS include fatigue; numbness or tingling of the face, arms and legs; weakness; dizziness and vertigo; walking or gait difficulties; blurry vision; bladder problems; and sometimes cognitive changes.

For more information on MS, visit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society at

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About the Author:

Megan Smalley is the associate editor of Pit & Quarry. Contact her at or 216-363-7930.

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