American Association for the Advancement of Science
Roadmaps & Rampways

PERSISTENCE

The Force will be with you always.
              - Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars

Legislation lets things happen. Assistive technology can dramatically level the playing field in studies and employment. However, if there is one personal attribute that distinguishes every student with a disability who has succeeded in science, mathematics, or engineering, it is persistence. Some dislike mathematics, yet they persist until they find a teacher who whets their interest. Some fail repeatedly, until they receive help that teaches them new ways to learn. Some have a progressive disability that gradually closes in their options, but they do not give up. Some are called stupid, but they show the world that they are smart. Whether it is a natural gift or acquired from adversity, persistence carries the students through, year after year, day after day.

Meet: Toya Barros, Stephen Holmberg, Nick Kleinjan, James Kevin O'Malley and Jonathan Winkler

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Toya Barros

Students often put a "personal quotation" on a dormitory wall, computer monitor, or web site to distill their philosophy toward life into a sentence or two for everyone to reflect upon. Consider this personal quote from a college student's web page:

"Without a struggle, it would be difficult to be proud of all that we have accomplished. Reach for the stars; make your dreams become reality. Reach for the stars, and say, 'I have given it my best, so I will be the best.'"

Students' personal web pages sometimes include a link, "About Me," that defines the core values that have brought the young man or woman thus far. Consider this student's self-description:

"I am a serious, dedicated, hardworking, intellectual woman who goes after all that I desire. I don't enter into any situation without trying to give my all. I am a self-determined beautiful woman with a goal in mind and will not stop until I reach my stars and mountain tops."

The student is Toya Remicia Pereira Barros. She regards persistence and hard work as key factors in her own successful reach toward a career that may quite literally be in the stars. Toya expects to graduate in 2001 with dual degrees in aerospace engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and physics from Spelman College. She'd like to follow her dad's footsteps into the U.S. Air Force. First, Toya envisions becoming an officer. Then comes an advanced degree in aerospace engineering.

Those dual interests in engineering and space date to early childhood in her hometown, Boston. "Ever since I was a young girl, I enjoyed taking things apart, figuring out how they work, and putting them back together," Toya said. "I also was a Trekkie. I loved watching Star Trek. I thought of a career with computer science and animation, perhaps designing defense systems. Then, one day, someone asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I just said aerospace engineering. I didn't really know what it was. My mom looked it up in the dictionary and told me it involved building airplanes and space vehicles. It sounded good. I stuck with it."

Mom and dad, Cheryl and Antonio Barros, encouraged those interests. After a career in the U.S. Air Force, Antonio became an electrician and was especially helpful in providing Toya with simple, understandable explanations of how mechanical and electronics things worked. Dad also lent a hand with school science projects. "Most important, my parents never let me give up and pushed me to carry through and never leave anything unfinished."

When Toya was five years old, Cheryl and Antonio learned that she had a hearing impairment, with moderate-to-severe hearing loss. Toya was born premature and weighed only two pounds, three ounces. Doctors are not sure if Toya was born with hearing loss or if it resulted from treatment administered to save her life. She wears two hearing aids and lip-reads. During her precollege years, Toya had weekly speech therapy sessions that helped her to enunciate clearly and develop good spoken-language skills.

Discovering the fun in science

Toya said that several teachers helped consolidate her early interest in science. One, for example, was a middle school science teacher, Mr. Lee, who showed Toya and other students that science could be fun. "He always had us doing science projects, making presentations, going on field trips, doing experiments to help us understand classroom lessons. Once, we built a telegraph machine, and I did the soldering. Another time, we tried to build a working model of the solar system - with all the planets rotating and revolving around the Sun. He made a big impression because I remember it all so clearly." Toya also recalled the impact of a high school math class field trip to a scientific symposium at Boston University and a physics class field trip to a science museum. Students listened to speaker at the symposium and then wrote a paper. After the science museum trip, they wrote reports on Uranus, its rings, and telescope observations of the planet.

Accommodations in elementary school and high school? Toya needed few. Her parents made sure that teachers were aware of the hearing impairment. Toya would sit at the front of classrooms. Teachers made a point of speaking clearly. They tried to face her while speaking and avoid lengthy periods of speaking while facing the chalkboard. They also made a point of writing things down on the chalkboard or overhead projectors. When Toya missed parts of lectures, she simply met with the teacher for an explanation after class.

Determination pays off

Toya used the same accommodations at college. She applied to six colleges and was accepted at all but one. Spelman, a historically Black college in Atlanta, was her first choice. She entered Spelman as a physics major with a minor in mathematics. Later, she entered a dual-degree program. It allows students at Spelman and three other Atlanta colleges to get two degrees in five years - a bachelor's degree in science from their own school and an engineering degree from Georgia Tech or any of the other engineering schools that participate in the program.

"Being in this program has helped to make me an extremely determined person," Toya said. "Aerospace engineering is extremely difficult. Georgia Tech really made me realize how important it is to always strive to do your best and not give up. When I graduate from both schools, that will be the proof that hard work, determination, and patience does pay off."

ENTRY POINT!

Spelman and Georgia Tech offered a great deal for students who are hearing impaired. Toya had praise for their Disability Services offices, which helped with assistive devices and services that included tape recorders, a TTY*, note takers, and even a strobe light that signals a fire alarm. Toya learned about the ENTRY POINT! program, which includes the NASA ACCESS internships, from Spelman's Disability Services coordinator.

Toya applied and spent the summer of 1998 interning at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia. She worked on a project investigating Raleigh scattering, which is a scattering of sunlight that occurs when incoming radiation encounters molecules in the atmosphere. Raleigh scattering is responsible for the blue color of the sky and the brilliant red colors at sunset. In 1999, Toya did another ENTRY POINT!/ACCESS internship at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, working on hardware integration for the International Space Station. In summer 2000, she moved into the private sector with an internship at the Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, CA.

"ENTRY POINT!'s big benefit is in giving a person the opportunity to get their feet into the technical door," Toya said. "It gave me the opportunity to get challenging work experience. I gained confidence to go after jobs more passionately and to always put my best foot forward and show people that I can be successful and that I am successful. I got plenty of experience in public speaking, and that was a big confidence booster. Sometimes, individuals with disabilities need additional avenues to get into jobs and show that they are the best and brightest as well."

Asked to reflect on the factors most critical for her success, Toya said, "I succeeded because I didn't focus on my disability as a barrier to block my road, but as a means to make me stronger. I had to work and fight to be the best that I can be, and I had a strong family that encouraged me to accept challenges. It takes a strong person to be a success. Being strong also means coming to terms with your disability and focusing on getting things done. This applies in both school and the workforce. Show your capabilities, and people will want to hire you."

*The teletypewriter (TTY), also known as a TDD (telecommunication device for the deaf), is the most common way that people with hearing impairments communicate by phone. One person calls another on the phone and puts the telephone handset on the TTY. The other person answers with their TTY and types something like "Toya here GA [go ahead]." They take turns typing, using GA when it's time for the other person to type. The ADA mandates an Interstate Relay System, which provides an intermediate operator to relay calls if one of the parties does not have access to a TTY.

 

Photo of Toya Barros

Toya Barros

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"I am a serious, dedicated, hardworking, intellectual woman who goes after all that I desire. I don't enter into any situation without trying to give my all. I am a self-determined beautiful woman with a goal in mind and will not stop until I reach my stars and mountain tops."

 

 


Stephen Holmberg

T wo math professors stopped at the drive-in window of a fast food place while arguing over literacy and numeracy. "Not one person in a million finds math easier than English," said one. "Everyone can read and write but nobody can enumerate."

"Another of your exaggerations," sighed the other.

"Watch this," said the first, paying for the burgers. "You have a good day, too, young lady. And by the way, would you know the integral of x squared?"

She scowled and paused. "That would be one-third x cubed," she finally replied. As the car sped away, tires squealing, she yelled, "Plus a constant!"

Stephen Holmberg does find math easier than English because of a learning disability, dyslexia, which was diagnosed in the 3rd grade. As an engineering/economics major at Dartmouth College, Steve breezed through math and computer science classes, but he still put extra effort into reading and writing. It's much smoother going now than it was in those frustrating days when Steve almost believed the assessment of a 2nd-grade teacher.

"The teacher actually called me retarded," he said.

Steve learned to read as a young child, and he loved reading at home. But he had difficulty reading in school, especially out loud. "I knew that I was smart," Steve said. "I knew that I could do things. I would sit and listen to the kid next to me in class read out loud and wonder why he could do it and I couldn't. It's hard to articulate. You know you are okay. You've got a good brain and are fine. But you also know that something is very wrong."

Mom and dad, Patty and Bill Holmberg, were equally confused about Steve's difficulties and began searching for information about learning disabilities. It led them to one of the popular workshops by special education expert Richard Lavoie. Lavoie's approach first got national attention in 1989, when PBS broadcast one of his workshops, F.A.T. City (for the frustration, anxiety, and tension that learning disabilities cause in kids, parents, and teachers). He uses exercises, simulations, and other techniques to make adults aware of what it is like to have a learning disability. Adults soon find themselves experiencing the frustration and anxiety that kids with learning disabilities experience in school.

Learning to learn

After being diagnosed with dyslexia, Steve attended 4th and 5th grades at Eagle Hill School in Greenwich, CT. It provides intensive, short-term remedial instruction to children with learning disabilities, so that they can return to the educational mainstream and do well.

"At Eagle Hill, I learned how to deal with my dyslexia," Steve said. "I learned how to learn differently. It was a real confidence builder. It gave me confidence that I was capable of doing the work everyone else did and provided me with a tremendous skill set to cope with the disability."

Steve attended Low-Haywood School in Stamford, CT, and then Green Farms Academy in Westport, CT, for 6th grade, where his interest in science and math grew. Since early childhood, Steve enjoyed taking things apart and putting them back together, building things with Lego's, and playing with educational toys.

The disability - and accommodations for it - in some ways increased Steve's science, engineering, and mathematics interests.

Math is easier

"For me, math always has been easier than English," Steve said. "Math is a much more logical and understandable transfer of information. It is clear-cut. You're correct or incorrect. There's often just one way of solving the problem. But with English composition, for instance, there are many shades of gray." Steve explained that in writing, he had to grapple with the concept of putting letters together to form words, writing words in a sequence that would form a sentence, and then linking sentences together to form paragraphs. Computer coursework in programming expanded his analytical thinking. Computers and word processing software turned out to be a big help, providing an easy way of rearranging and editing text and turning rough drafts into finished documents.

When Steve attended Green Farms Academy, he needed just a few accommodations. He had extra time for written tests, for instance, and was excused from reading out loud in class. Foreign language requirements were waived. Steve's high school offered plenty of advanced science, math, and computer courses. He substituted those for a foreign language, getting an even more thorough preparation for college. He finished third in his senior high school class of 50 students.

Choosing Dartmouth

Several factors led Steve to choose Dartmouth. There was the school's academic reputation, of course. Nancy Pompian, director of Dartmouth's Disabilities Services office, got Steve more enthusiastic about the school. The Dartmouth squash coach played a role, too. Steve started playing squash in high school and helped the Dartmouth team attain a number five national ranking in 1999. He was ranked among the top 64 nationally in college squash. "I came to a summer squash camp and just loved everything about Dartmouth - the people, the students, the academics. They're incredible."

"When I got to Dartmouth, I knew that I wanted to major in engineering, because it's a way to apply mathematics," Steve said. "When working in engineering, I get to apply the math to real-world situations, rather than the abstract." With thoughts of possibly applying engineering skills in other fields, Steve also took a concentration of economics courses. Dartmouth waived the foreign language requirement and gave him extra time on tests.

Internships

Nancy told Steve about the ENTRY POINT!/ACCESS internship.

"I saw NASA on the information sheet, and I knew I had to apply," Steve said. "I have always loved space. The possibility of getting to work at an organization like NASA seemed too good to be true."

The dream did come true, and Steve spent the summer of 1998 working on several projects involving fiber optics at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. His experiences ranged from characterizing the functionality of new fiber-optic magnetic sensors and doing vibration tests on fiber-optic databases to designing and creating web pages.

"ENTRY POINT!/ACCESS was a fabulous opportunity to gain exposure to engineering in a real-world environment, outside academia," Steve said. "The whole program was wonderful. The people were outstanding. The work was fun. I'd say just one thing to other students with disabilities: Get into this program. Do it."

Steve did another internship to gain insights into the real world of his second academic interest, economics. He worked in a big investment bank and was delighted with that experience. "I just love the pace of investment work. It's fast, it's intense, and there is a great deal of action." After graduation in June 2001, he will be working with Salomon Smith Barney as an investment banking analyst in New York City.

Why did Steve succeed?

He gives plenty of credit, of course, to a supportive family, and the teachers, mentors, and others whose countless hours helped him along the path. "On a personal level, I have drive and determination to succeed," Steve said. "I also focus my efforts on my strengths, and not my weaknesses. I've learned to set goals that are challenging but realistic."

Steve cited a need for greater understanding of learning disabilities among the individuals who ultimately will determine the success of students like him. They are employers. "The term 'learning disability' does not mean 'dumb,'" Steve said. "Individuals with learning disabilities who have made it, gone through college, and reached the point of applying for jobs have what it takes to be successful. Yes, it may take them longer to complete a job. But the LD can be a huge asset. It has taught me how to persevere, and how to succeed and overcome obstacles."

Photo of Stephen Holmberg

Stephen Holmberg


Nick Kleinjan

Nick Kleinjan hasn't written books - yet, anyway. But his personal experience with congenital achromatopsia has helped make teachers, professors, fellow students, and employers more aware that individuals with limited vision can excel in science and engineering.

Nick was graduated from South Dakota State University in December 1999 with a double major in mechanical engineering and biological systems engineering. Grow up on a 3,500-acre working farm - with plenty of mechanical equipment to repair and maintain and crops and livestock to raise - and those interests are a natural. Nick and his four brothers did exactly that as they grew up with mom and dad, Thomas and Carol Kleinjan, near Bruce, SD. Thomas owned the spread with his brothers.

"I've been interested in animals and plants for as long as I can remember," Nick said. "We grew lots of crops on the farm in addition to the cattle and other livestock. And I was very interested in the farm machinery. I'd watch my dad and brothers repair the equipment, and play around on the tractors and other machines. I even drove the tractors when I was a little kid. No, not on the road, but in the fields between the bales of hay."

Nick, however, realized early on that his life's work would not be on the farm. It lay down another road. Nick was diagnosed with congenital achromatopsia. The normal eye has about six million "cone" cells, which are photoreceptor cells in the retina that produce color vision and sharp-detail vision. People with congenital achromatopsia lack cone cells and are either totally colorblind or almost totally colorblind and have poor eyesight. In addition, they experience the most severe form of light sensitivity known to medicine. Think of the discomfort of emerging from a dimly lit building into bright, glaring sunshine. Then think of experiencing the eye-watering pain constantly when out-of-doors, even in cloudy weather.

Small community

Small towns like Bruce, with a population of about 235, differ from urban America in more than size. They are real communities, where everyone knows everyone from cradle to grave. Schools are smaller. Nick went to Sioux Valley High School, which had about 200 students. The size and familiarity often bring a natural understanding and acceptance of differing abilities. "People already knew about me before I even got to class," Nick said. "Getting help was never an issue. Teachers knew that I should sit at the front of the classroom to see the chalkboard. Teachers provided me with copies of their notes and overheads. Nobody asked why I read with a magnifying glass or wore sunglasses all the time."

For Nick and other individuals with congenital achromatopsia, those are the two main forms of assistive technology required for the disability. In bright outdoor light, Nick uses very dark tinted sunglasses. Indoors, he wears lighter tinted lenses. On their voyage to Pingelap, Dr. Sachs and his associates brought hundreds of pairs of sunglasses and marveled at how these simple, inexpensive devices changed the lives of people with maskun. Individuals with congenital achromatopsia use other simple coping strategies, such as blinking, squinting, and positioning themselves for more comfort in relation to light sources.

Elementary and secondary school fostered Nick's interest in science. He remembers being fascinated with mathematics and science courses and experiencing real delight in physics laboratory sessions. Family trips to the Kennedy Space Center and the National Air and Space Museum reinforced those interests. "I always knew that I would attend college," Nick said. "I knew I wasn't going to stay home and farm, mainly because of my disability. By high school, I was sure that I would major in engineering."

Nick won a scholarship offered to South Dakota residents with PSAT and ACT scores in the top percentile of all high school seniors in the state. It provided a four-year package of full tuition plus a stipend for living expenses.

Big university

South Dakota State University (SDSU) at Brookings, with almost 8,000 students on campus and hundreds in some lecture sections, was quite a different community. "It was real shock," Nick said. "At first, you don't know very many students. In my freshman chemistry class, there were 500 students. And none of the teaching staff is aware that you have limited vision. And it's not so easy to ask for help."

Students with disabilities make their own individual decisions on the amount of assistance needed from the Disabled Student Services (DSS) offices that exist on most college campuses. Nick concluded that he could do just fine without formal assistance, and he never visited the SDSU DSS office until a few months before graduation.

Nick, in effect, took care of his own accommodations. He assessed the situation in each individual class and mentioned his limited vision to the professor if necessary. In the 500-student chemistry class, for instance, the professor gave weekly quizzes - written on an overhead projector. With the bright light and distance, Nick had difficulty reading questions on the screen. Realizing that he could drop his three lowest scores, Nick tried to adapt. After failing two quizzes, however, he recognized the need to act. Nick spoke to the professor, who quickly agreed to provide Nick with paper copies of each quiz. As the course progressed, however, there were times when the professor would forget to prepare the paper copy. When reminded, the professor seemed slightly annoyed, Nick said.

"I really didn't need any type of assistance. I was getting by pretty good without help. Looking back on those years now, there were a few times when life would have been easier if I had used the resources of the DSS office at SDSU. They would have notified professors of my limited vision, for instance, and I could have avoided situations like the chemistry quizzes."

Nick also used minimal assistive technology for individuals with limited vision - mainly a magnifying lens for reading and computer software that enlarges monitor images. It was a computer class that led Nick to use the DSS office. The class involved extensive use of terminals in a computer lab, and Nick could not see the standard monitor images. The office arranged an image enlarger.

Patent and pending

During his undergraduate years, Nick worked as a research assistant in the engineering department. He spent junior year in the National Student Exchange program studying mechanical engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. While at Virginia Tech, Nick learned about the ENTRY POINT!/ACCESS program from an e-mail list. He applied and spent the summer of 1998 at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. Nick worked on a team involved in developing a satellite guidance system.

"It was an incredible opportunity," Nick said. "I did a lot of C++ programming, and you can bet that looked awfully good on my résumé when I was applying for a job after college. NASA also taught me a lot about working in a real-world environment."

Senior year, Nick and three other SDSU students decided to enter the prestigious Student Design Competition sponsored by the American Society of Agricultural Engineers (ASAE). During the year, they built a remote-controlled machine designed to reduce labor costs in swine production facilities. It is a remote-controlled robot, a wheeled vehicle that leads a boar around a hog production facility - a job that ordinarily takes two strong men.

Nick's team wound up among three finalists selected to present their project at the ASAE national meeting, held that year in Toronto. They won second prize. The entrepreneur who sponsored the SDSU entry patented the invention and put the students' names on the patent. About 120 of the machines have been sold at $6,000 each.

Another patent may be in Nick's future. With the NASA internship on his résumé, Nick received a grant from the South Dakota Space Grant Consortium in the summer of 1999 to develop a photobioreactor, a device that can be used to grow microalgae or other photosynthetic organisms. One application: detoxifying industrial waste streams.

After graduation, Nick took a job as an applications engineer with the Trane Co., the global air conditioning and comfort systems firm, in Minneapolis. After one year, he took a new applications engineering position with a German-based control company, Beckhoff Automation. Beckhoff makes industrial-strength computers for use in industry. They also produce software that implements a new PC-based control technology. While Nick is working, he is about to complete a mini-master program in software design from the University of St. Thomas.

*Oliver Sachs's book, which led to a 1998 PBS documentary, helped make the public more aware of congenital achromatopsia, a rare hereditary eye disease. Sachs is a neurologist and author of best sellers like Awakenings. For Island of the Colorblind, Sachs visited Pingelap Island, a tiny Pacific atoll where about one-third of the population carry the gene for congenital achromatopsia. Among Pingelap's 700 residents, 1 in 12 had the disease - compared to about 1 in 33,000 in the United States.

Photo of Nick Kleinjan

Nick Kleinjan

 

Infants with the eye disease appeared normal at birth, but when two or three months old would start to squint or blink, to screw up their eyes or turn their heads away in the face of bright light, and when they were toddlers it became apparent that they could not see fine detail or small objects at a distance. By the time they reached four or five, it was clear they could not distinguish colors. The term maskun ("not see") was coined [by the Pingelap Islanders] to describe this strange condition, which occurred with equal frequency in both male and female children, children otherwise normal, bright, and active in all ways.
- The Island of the Colorblind*


James Kevin O'Malley

Eighth grade is the "in-between" year - between middle and high school, between childhood and the more complex adult world - when young people often start making decisions, discovering likes and dislikes, and developing focused interests that eventually lead to a college major and a career.

So it went for James Kevin O'Malley, who traced his interest in computers to 8th grade, when he began to realize that college - which he and his family always knew lay ahead - might combine computing with an even earlier interest in engineering. "Both of my parents have master's degrees," O'Malley said. Dad was a mechanical engineer who worked for NASA, and mom taught in elementary school. "It was only a question of where, what major, and how far for me in terms of going to college."

Eighth grade also was the point at which O'Malley's disability, retinitis pigmentosa (RP), was diagnosed. RP is a group of inherited diseases that result in gradual breakdown of cells in the retina, especially those required for night and peripheral vision, and a progressive loss of vision. Symptoms include night blindness, a loss of peripheral vision sometimes called "tunnel vision," and the inability to discriminate colors. It affects about 100,000 people in the United States.

The diagnosis came after Kevin noticed a loss in night vision. But RP never affected Kevin's plans for college or his career aspirations. "The implications of the diagnosis never really sunk in with me or my parents," Kevin said. "They didn't regard me as disabled, and I did pretty much the same things as other kids."

Kevin was born in 1977 in Miami, FL. The O'Malleys have a daughter two years older. No one else in the family has RP or other disabilities. Kevin's sister got a business degree from the University of Central Florida, worked in a bank for a few years, and then returned to the University of Florida to study for an MBA. The family moved to Georgia when Kevin was two years old, lived in West Germany for six years, and then moved back to the Coco Beach, FL, area when Kevin was in 4th grade.

"I always loved building things"

Kevin remembers liking math and science in elementary and high school and doing very well in those subjects. "I always loved building things, solving problems, playing with computers, and then using them to learn and solve problems. My parents were always very supportive and encouraging. I had great phenomenal high school teachers. My sister also was there for me." Kevin played lots of sports, but never had any desire to play professionally. "It was always hammered in to me that I'd go to college." Adults who were especially influential in Kevin's career choice? Kevin remembers two childhood mentors, his grandfather and father. Granddad worked his way through college and then worked his way up from an entry-level position with Rockwell International, which was the main contractor at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. "He pushed the button that launched the first flight," Kevin said. "My father? He was always there - the NASA engineer."

In high school, Kevin did not need accommodations or assistive technology. "I wanted to do things on my own," he said. He was on the track and swim teams and a member of several school organizations. One that brought special enjoyment was Future Business Leaders of America, in which Kevin won local, state, and national competitions. The O'Malley family had a sideline business making trophies and signs. Kevin and his sister worked for the family business and picked up plenty of entrepreneurial skills. The business also introduced Kevin to the legislative framework for individuals with physical disabilities even before his own disability was diagnosed. All of the O'Malley signs had to be ADA-compliant, and Kevin grew up knowing that the acronym meant Americans with Disabilities Act.

College years

A National Merit Scholarship and a state academic scholarship helped finance that always-taken-for-granted step in Kevin's life: college.

By the time Kevin arrived at the University of Florida's Gainesville campus, he was certain of a career in engineering but not sure about the specific field. He knew about mechanical engineering from his dad, but he made a point of getting acquainted with the other engineering disciplines and their future career opportunities. "I was thinking of the job market ahead," he said. "There were big dollars there for computer engineers. That was a big factor in picking my major, but not the only one. As I said, I really liked working with computers."

Kevin decided on a dual major in electrical engineering and computer engineering. "It wasn't until I was at the University of Florida and was examined by an eye doctor that everyone grasped the severity of RP," Kevin said. "I was diagnosed as legally blind."

RP did affect class work, but not to a major degree, Kevin said. "This particular kind of visual loss - the tunnel vision combined with overall decrease in ability to distinguish objects - resulted in some conflicting needs. In order to see all of the chalkboard, I have to sit in the back of the lecture room. In order to make out what is on the board, I have to sit closer to the front. So it's important for me to find a 'happy medium' when I sit." Kevin said he had few problems reading textbooks, aside from needing more time to read. With RP, it was difficult for him to scan pages and rapidly find needed information.

New challenges

Sophomore year brought new challenges. As RP progressed, Kevin was having more problems seeing, especially with peripheral vision. "I could see directly in front of me," he said. "What I couldn't see were people, obstacles, other objects coming up at me from the side." One day, he was hit by a biker, who sped into that no-vision zone. As a result, Kevin got Stormy, his first guide dog.

Stormy was one of the few accommodations that Kevin used at the university, where he maintained a 3.6 grade point average and became a member of Eta Kappa Nu, the electrical engineering honor society. Professors gave him copies of course material shown on overhead projectors. The Disabled Students Services office allowed extra time for taking exams, but Kevin never used that accommodation. The university provided Kevin with a 24-inch computer. He did not use screen reader or other special software.

College summers were spent at work. One summer, Kevin worked as a volunteer at the Kennedy Space Center's robotics laboratory. "They realized that I was trained and was good, and made an effort to bring me back the next year - with funding." That next year, Kevin returned to Kennedy as a participant in the ENTRY POINT!/ACCESS internship program. NASA called Kevin and told him about the program. He applied and was accepted. The following summer, Kevin opted to work on a research project with a professor at University of Florida.

Kevin's persistence and high achievement paid off. Upon graduation, he was offered a job by Lockheed Martin Information Services where he is working as a software engineer.

Photo of James Kevin O'Malley

James Kevin O'Malley


Jonathan Winkler

Jonathan N. Winkler was a Kansas State University senior majoring in physics, mathematics, and English in December 1997 when he became one of 32 students in the United States selected for a Rhodes scholarship. He was the first student who was deaf in the esteemed program, which provides two years of study at Oxford University. During the program, Winkler pursued research on a childhood fascination: highway transportation systems. The interest began when young Jonathan took a two-hour daily school bus trip to classes for pupils who are hearing impaired. In the following commentary, Jonathan discusses influences that steered him toward superior academic performance.

I was born in 1975, normal in all respects, including hearing. I did not lose my ability to hear until October 1979, when my mother and grandmother noticed I was not responding to the sound of their voices. Subsequent diagnosis (by my pediatrician in Wichita and specialists at the St. Louis Children's Hospital) showed that my cochlear nerve was not responding to vibratory stimuli, but they did not find a cause or reason why this should be so. I had been going to preschool when this happened, and although my parents had considered sending me to Catholic school when I became old enough for kindergarten, I was instead placed in the public schools because they thought it would be easier to obtain the necessary support services.

The Wichita public schools operated on a total communication philosophy emphasizing hearing-aid use and English-based signing system, with most students who are hearing impaired beginning elementary school in self-contained resource classrooms, equipped with a teacher and a paraprofessional for about 10 students in each grade.

Students were gradually mainstreamed in regular classes (with paraprofessionals functioning as Signed English interpreters) according to ability and skill level. I spent kindergarten and 1st grade in the self-contained resource classrooms, where I became the first student in my kindergarten class to learn the alphabet, and was moved into the regular 2nd-grade class for an hour every day in 2nd grade (to learn cursive script). I was moved there for three hours (most of the core subjects) in 3rd grade and was fully mainstreamed from 4th grade onward.

Initially, I was judged a poor risk for mainstreaming, but did well on an I.Q. test as part of my first three-year evaluation in 2nd grade, and I got support from the school psychologist for a more challenging placement outside the self-contained classrooms. In 5th grade, I became the first student in the Wichita school district to be classified in two special-needs categories - both hearing impaired and intellectually gifted. I had access to honors classes in junior high and then honors and advanced placement classes in high school.

I experimented with a hearing aid until 3rd grade but eventually abandoned it, since my hearing loss was too great (it is over 90% in both ears), and my ability to discriminate among high-pitched sounds, even with correction, was poor.

The school bus factor

I was a very bookish child and had a great deal of enforced leisure to read every school day. All of the district's pupils who were hearing impaired were educated at core schools on the east side of town, and I lived on the west side, meaning I typically had a 50-minute bus ride each way. I remember C.S. Lewis and H.G. Wells fondly, but many of the books I continue to find influential - such as Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, which I think of each day as I try to inspire myself to accomplish something - were also "bus books."

The daily journey took me on Kellogg Avenue (expressway U.S. 54-400 as it passes through Wichita), which was immured in improvement works almost continuously while I was in school; watching road segments take form and reading about City Council debates on how to pay for them gave me my first taste of the many-layered complexity of road engineering projects.

Involved teachers

In high school, I was fortunate to encounter intelligent and involved teachers in most of my core subjects. I value careful writing now, partly because of the efforts of my sophomore English teacher. I owe my enthusiasm for math and physics to my calculus and physics teachers in junior year. The former made it seem exciting to obtain a neat closed-form result from an apparently messy problem, while the latter consciously experimented with unconventional ways of demonstrating physical principles. Those included launching rockets to illustrate reaction propulsion or lying on a bed of nails to demonstrate distribution of pressure.

Junior-year American history taught me the ethics of being a good analytical historian - accumulating every available bit of evidence and carefully assessing its weight and relevancy - although its presentation of history was itself very conventional, consisting mainly of identifications of groups and trends and their interactions with each other, and resulted in an account of historical events very reminiscent of Newtonian dynamics.

Outside of school, I was influenced by the continuing example of a friend who is deaf and had gone through the system eight years before me. He was pursuing a professional degree (and now is a successful veterinarian in suburban Chicago). His parents, especially his mom, were positive influences, as well. They encouraged my aspirations for academic success, and had resolute optimism that gave me the courage to pursue my interests and hope for rewards that I could only dimly visualize.

College education

After being accepted at Harvard and the University of Kansas, I elected to go to Kansas State University, largely on the strength of a close comparison of faculty involvement in teaching and cost. I haven't been disappointed by my choice but the road toward getting adequate support services for my disability had a bumpy beginning.

Initially, I was assigned interpreters for individual classes and had to request extracurricular interpreting from the university's Disabilities Resource office,

although all support services were actually paid for by the state Office for Vocational Rehabilitation. After one semester, I hashed out the course schedule with interpreters and stenographers, and - with the support of my vocational rehabilitation counselor - I made my own arrangements for support service, financed with vocational rehabilitation funds.

Real-time captioning

After two years, it became obvious that the level of course material was too complex to be readily handled by interpreters, so vocational rehabilitation consented to an experiment with real-time captioning (CART). This was successful, mostly because real-time has very little lag, ambiguity, and with a skilled stenographer, very little chance for misunderstanding. I especially liked the fact that I could type what I said in class discussions and therefore be reverse-interpreted with 100% accuracy, which had rarely happened before with most interpreters I had at the college level. This allowed me to be viewed as an intelligent and involved student based on the questions and comments I made in class, not just the written work I submitted.

Thereafter, I used real-time captioning for the majority of my classes, initially with some exceptions (mainly interpreters for courses which I thought would be less demanding in vocabulary). For extracurricular events or other things for which high mobility was required, I generally used an interpreter.

This high level of service provision enabled me to pursue three majors over three years, and I eventually graduated with all three - English, mathematics, and physics. It also allowed me to participate in a research project to determine helium double-ionization ratios experimentally, which (together with a raft of recommendations from friendly professors) enabled me to win the Goldwater scholarship in 1995.

The NASA experience

During the summer of 1996, I worked at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center under the AAAS/NASA ACCESS program. The project involved collimator grids for the High-Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager. HESSI is essentially an imaging telescope, which builds pictures of the Sun in the X-ray segment of the spectrum similar to what astronomers get in visible-light wavelengths with a conventional telescope. Its success hinged on careful measurement of slat spacing in these grids. I worked on a three-member team that wrote computer programs to operate an instrument table that automatically took those measurements. The HESSI project wasn't funded until two years after we started the project. In effect, we helped strengthen its funding application by demonstrating collimator grid calibration and thus proving that the Fourier telescope design was technically feasible.

Oxford

Since 2000, I have been investigating the development of the British motorway network, focusing on the period between 1950 and 1970 when liberalization in carrier licensing promoted demand from the road haulage industry for road space. This research takes place in the Department of Economic and Social History in the Faculty of Modern History.

It was a landmark era in British highway transport, when the first motorways were built, their technical specifications were fixed and refined, and techniques were developed for settling on alignments and estimating capacity requirements. I find this work particularly interesting in the British context, since the degree of central planning is much greater than in the United States. At the same time, the British public's level of participation in the "car culture" (defined in terms of car ownership and possession of a driving license) is much lower and is controlled much more rigorously. I hope to research American roads in the same way, although I also find appealing the eventual prospect of managing them. My concentration now is economic and social history. My current program has a taught component, which would ordinarily require me to attend lectures and seminars, but my supervisor arranged for me to have tutorials instead.

Photo of Jonathan Winkler

Jonathan Winkler


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Profiles: Assistive Technology | Persistence | Beyond All Expectations | Late Diagnosis | The Golden Door | Informal Science and Popular Culture | The Pinball Effect | Families

Additional Materials: The Roadmaps Game | Afterward | Students' Backgrounds | Assistive Technology | Notes on Disabilities | 1990s Profile of Students with Students in Higher Education | Acknowledgments | References

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