Engineers with Disabilities Describe Creative, Persistent Strategies They Took to Succeed
Growing up, Larry Pileggi thought first that he wanted to be a medical doctor, and then, as he explored oil painting in high school, he thought about pursuing an art career. In time, he nixed both options—not for lack of interest or talent, but because they presented physical challenges that he could not overcome.
It was a powerful message that Pileggi delivered to a group of scientists and engineers with disabilities who gathered recently at AAAS. Sitting in a wheelchair, he described compromises, work-arounds, frustrations—and yet, with candor and good humor, he insisted that one could build a satisfying, high-impact career despite the challenges.
“You cannot be whatever you want to be,” said Pileggi, now an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Still, he said, “we all have talents and skills,” and he encouraged participants to focus on what they’re good at and not worry so much about what they can’t do.
About 90 participants attended the first-of-its-kind meeting—“Problem Solvers: Education and Career Paths of Engineers with Disabilities”—held 13-15 December at AAAS. The meeting was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and organized by the AAAS Project on Science, Technology and Disability. Fifty of the participants were engineers with disabilities, and the other participants were advocates and other scientists. Participants came from academia, industry, federal agencies and professional societies; they were students, tenured faculty, and engineers with senior industry positions.
“No one has ever had a meeting with all engineers with disabilities—usually they’re just token speakers at technical meetings,” said Virginia Stern, who organized the AAAS meeting. Stern directs the 35 year old AAAS Project on Science, Technology and Disability. “There are so many stories of people with disabilities having successful S&T careers, but this is the first time that we know of that so many of them have come together to explain the specific problems that they’ve faced and how they’ve solved them.”
Ted Conway, who oversees the program Research to Aid Persons with Disabilities (RAPD) in the NSF’s Engineering Directorate, helped inspire the “Problem Solvers” workshop at AAAS. He described how people with disabilities are always solving problems just to get around in the world. He said that these problem-solving skills translate well to success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. He encouraged meeting attendees to follow their passion and to pass on their know-how by mentoring other students with disabilities.
Shirley Malcom | Photograph by Michael J. Colella, colellaphoto.com
Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, said that policy is needed when it comes to increasing the number of scientists and engineers with disabilities in the workforce. “We need to craft a policy, education, research, and practice agendas so we can understand career paths and successes,” she said.
The December workshop prompted a creative set-up in the AAAS auditorium to accommodate the engineers. A few rows of seats had been removed to make way for meeting attendees in wheelchairs; stenographers sat up front to provide closed-captioning, and sign language interpreters shared the stage with the meeting’s speakers. And a German Shepherd dozed beneath one of the auditorium’s seats, at the feet of one of the meeting attendees.
Disabilities represented at the Problem Solvers workshop included paraplegia, neurodegenerative diseases, hearing loss and blindness, as well as non-apparent disabilities such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Asperger’s syndrome and health issues.
Disabled veterans and people with mental health issues are also part of the increasing pool of scientists and engineers with disabilities. Including persons with disabilities in the technical workforce—and making practical accommodations as needed—is part of efforts to increase diversity and innovation in S&T.
But for the engineers who spoke at the meeting, disability was not defining. Creativity has been an asset that allows them to innovate their way through challenges. And they’ve been quick to exploit the latest technology tools.
The Power of Internet Tools
Vinton Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google, also shared some career stories at the AAAS meeting. During his 13 December talk, Cerf described how he has succeeded in his career in part because, even though his hearing is diminished, improved hearings aids helped keep him in the game.
He said email, since its advent in 1971, has been a “remarkable” assistive tool. “Email gave me precision, timeliness and even overcame time zone problems,” Cerf said. Online chatting tools, like iChat, AOL Instant Messenger and Skype, also have helped him. And now, Google Wave—which combines blogging, emailing, and instant messaging—could become another popular assistive tool. Three-dimensional videoconferencing could be yet another as it develops and becomes more practical and widely-used.
In his talk, “Internet and You,” Cerf told the audience how Google has made the Internet more usable for people with disabilities. For example, he said, YouTube recently added an automatic caption service for videos.
Cerf emphasized that as the Internet evolves and cyber-security strengthens, the openness of the World Wide Web must be preserved. Many times assistive tools like instant messaging are invented by people who created them out of necessity and that these people “just put them up and let people try them,” he said. It’s this form of “permissionless innovation” that is an important quality to retain in the Internet—without it, innovation would be stifled.
Assistive Technology in the Workplace
Accommodations in the workplace can make all the difference. Voice recognition software, Braille keyboards, and screen magnification software help individuals with disabilities use their computers. Dinah Cohen, director of the Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program (CAP) at the U.S. Department of Defense, helps pair disabled workers with assistive technology. Since 1990, the program has filled at least 81,000 requests for assistive devices in the workplace. Apart from the Department of Defense, the program provides services to 65 federal agencies.
“This world was not designed for people like us, which makes us have to be great problem solvers,” said Cohen, who has a non-apparent disability: a rare form of heart disease. She described services provided by CAP during her 15 December talk at AAAS.
Typically, users will have an appointment with a CAP staff member and see what tools are available. Then the CAP staff will pay for and distribute the technology. “We don’t want to hear that we’re not getting employed because they cannot afford to accommodate employees with disabilities,” Cohen said. The program also serves disabled veterans and people who have become disabled due to cancer, car accidents, and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Cohen had some advice for meeting attendees. “You need to know what accommodations you may need in the workforce,” she said. She also said that summer work programs are the “best way to change lousy attitudes” that potential employers may have toward hiring researchers with disabilities. The Workforce Recruitment Program for College Students with Disabilities provides such experiences. Similarly, AAAS’s ENTRY POINT! and ACCESS —co-sponsored by AAAS and NASA— place students with disabilities in summer internships in industry and at federal laboratories.
She also described how people with disabilities can undergo a streamlined, non-competitive application process for federal jobs, if the applicant has a Schedule A certification and is qualified for the job. Individuals with this certification can get in touch with the disability hiring manager at the federal agency and describe what skills they have and what jobs they would be qualified to do. Then the manager can “help you do job-matching and then you can apply without waiting and competing once the job announcement comes out.” This incentive is part of federal efforts in counteract decreasing numbers of people with disabilities in the workforce.
How to Navigate the Challenges
But a person’s character, too, is an essential career-building tool.
When a career in art or medicine was too cumbersome to pursue with a disability, Pileggi followed his talent in mathematics instead. He obtained a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering. While his disability made lab work in graduate school difficult, he says that now his graduate students make such work possible for him. Pileggi has found success in industry and academia, and he’s the Tanoto Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon and the director of the Center for Circuit & System Solutions, a multi-university U.S. research program..
Pileggi could almost make success look easy, and he says that he wouldn’t have changed anything about his career path—even the obstacles. He used his talk to describe some of those he’s encountered throughout his career.
For instance, he came across one surprising barrier when he began a job at Westinghouse R&D in August 1984 as a chip designer. Once he had a desk and a computer, he figured he was good to go. But then he realized that the bathroom was not wheelchair-accessible. It made for “a tough first week of work” while the company was making appropriate accommodations, Pileggi said. But “physical barriers aren’t really an issue if you have the right attitude and support.”
Pileggi said that his biggest challenge is travel. Even though it has become less burdensome, he said that travel continues to be the biggest barrier in his career. And that, again, has meant compromise. He admits that he has turned down exciting offers and projects because they would have required extensive travel.
He said that of his many travel misadventures, one of his “favorites” was in 1985 during his first work-related trip to California’s Silicon Valley. A San Jose taxi driver threw his manual wheelchair out of frustration. That, along with some advice from an NSF program manager, prompted Pileggi to request supplemental travel funds for his research grant so that his wife or a travel assistant could come with him on work trips.
“Perhaps my best advice is to find a great partner,” he advised meeting attendees, many of whom were students. “My wife may have had more to do with my success than I have,” Pileggi said, pointing to his wife sitting in the audience.
Pileggi encouraged members of the audience to appreciate their bodies. “We’re all part of an enormous distribution. We all have talents and skills,” he said. Even though his body prevented him from becoming a medical doctor, he has found a job that he can do well and that he enjoys.
And now, he says, there’s been an “interesting twist” in his career: He has recently started working with researchers on the biological and potential medical applications of applying his work with circuit simulations for biochemical kinetics. Pileggi described his new research collaboration with chemists, who are interested in using Pileggi’s knowledge of solving circuits to model and better understand DNA sequencing and chemical synthesis.
Which, given his difficult early career decisions, gives Pileggi a certain satisfaction. “Perhaps it all comes back around,” he says. “You might get to do what you set out to do initially.”