Impact Feature Issue on Employment and Women With Disabilities

My "Crooked" Path to Science


Laureen Summers is Program Associate with the Project on Science, Technology and Disability at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C.

I never planned on a science career. I have cerebral palsy, which affects my speech and muscle coordination movements. Throughout my education years, science was difficult to master and no one encouraged me to understand scientific theories, hypotheses, chemical reactions, and factual frameworks. My lack of fine motor skills prevented me from dissecting a frog, diagramming a hibiscus flower, and mixing chemicals in test tubes. Field trips were hard on me. Science was not much fun.

Why was science so difficult for me? My deep curiosity about the world and my eagerness to make sense of my own life somehow seemed scientific in and of itself. If the role of a scientist is to formulate, experiment, and examine interesting theories that would result in new discoveries, couldn't that definition be applicable to me? And, isn't every person a potential scientist because we all must experiment, explore, try, fail, and finally discover the best education and career opportunities that will allow each of us the fullest life possible? And yet...

I graduated from college with a Liberal Arts degree, not having been too encouraged to find and understand my strengths. It seemed difficult for my professors to know exactly what to do with, or expect from, a student with a disability. Many things interested me, but upon graduation I was no closer to understanding what I really wanted to do.

My friends were not disabled. I had grown up trying to fit into "normal" society, constantly trying to prove to others that I was smart and capable. We never discussed my disability, and it was many years before I could admit to the loneliness of not having a peer who could understand my issues.

In my mid 20s, I met a scientist - an inventor - who, even before a motorcycle accident left him with paraplegia, had decided to let nothing deter him from pursuing his dreams. We talked for hours and his confidence about himself contradicted every negative thing I ever thought about disability. He traveled to underdeveloped countries, setting up workshops for people with disabilities that taught them to build wheelchairs from found materials that fit their needs and adapted to the terrain of their environment. My friend had a supportive group of friends with and without disabilities to cheer him on and help him discover the technology that made his work possible. I was awed by the role science played in his life and his determination in making a respected place for himself as an engineer.

My friend encouraged me to work at a local center for independent living, a consumer-based organization. I was hired to create and manage a peer counseling program. It was a great experience but, after five years, a change in staff and program objectives led me to pursue other opportunities. However, this experience was an important step for me in integrating disability and work, and it set the stage for a career yet to come.

A few years later, when I was again job hunting, another friend mentioned an opening at a prestigious science organization. The details implied the job had to do with the recruitment and retention of engineering students with disabilities. The director of a project on science, technology and disability was seeking a person with a disability who would build connections with scientists and engineers with disabilities. I felt excited, but wondered if I would actually qualify. Would I have the skills and confidence to talk to scientists?

After my initial conversation with the director, I thought, "If I could talk to this woman once a week for the rest of my life, everything would be okay." She was smart, direct, and welcoming. I knew that if I was hired, working for her would push me in new ways and her expectations would be high. I also sensed that her attitude towards me would always be fair.

In 1991, I accepted the position as a Program Associate with the Project on Science, Technology and Disability at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). My major role was to provide technical assistance to students with disabilities, parents, teachers, counselors, and other interested people on making science classrooms and curricula accessible to students and scientists with disabilities. There were many scientists with disabilities who found unique coping skills and support systems that assisted them to persevere in science education and professional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers. They became role models for others. Any hesitation I felt about talking to "important" people in the field was overcome by my excitement in assisting students, scientists, and other professionals with disabilities in the field to connect with each other.

Despite the success of many scientists with disabilities, and as a result of her research from the engineering project under which I was hired, my director discovered that there were few employment opportunities being offered to new graduates with disabilities in science and engineering. It was quite timely when, in 1996, the project was asked to manage a summer internship program for college students with disabilities at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center located in Greenbelt, Maryland. I was asked to find seven students with disabilities from colleges and universities across the country to participate in Goddard's 10-week summer internship program. I e-mailed every disability service coordinator at as many universities I could think of, seeking a diverse pool of talented technical students with disabilities.

My director gave me a lot of freedom to build the program and I changed many of the practices instituted by the former coordinator. For example, instead of checking in on them every other day, I visited every other week; instead of meeting the interns all together in one location, I visited each student at their worksite to get a bigger picture of what their day was like; instead of taking them to baseball games, I took them to Congress. I trusted them to work hard. I knew they could figure out how to get around the city on weekends for entertainment, and I was having a good time bashing through more stereotypes about my folks.

In 1997, the program expanded agency-wide and I took the initiative to build relationships with internship coordinators at NASA sites throughout the country. We named the program ACCESS (Achieving Competency in Computing, Engineering and Space Science), and NASA defined it as an exposure and feeder program to mainstream co-ops and other NASA programs that could lead to permanent employment. ACCESS became the model for other organizations who became our partners and offered similar internship opportunities.

When NASA folks hesitated about bringing on students with disabilities, I took them to lunch and asked them about their lives. My interest in them sparked their interest in me and, suddenly, they wanted more details on the program. It was an incredible insight and taught me so much about recruiting "champions" for the program.

It was tremendous support from friends, a wonderful husband, a smart, sassy daughter, and a boss who believed in my abilities (even when I did not!) that led me to discover the work that would make me happy. I find myself encouraging many people, and especially young women, to build a personal life as big and as satisfying as they want their professional lives to be. One will nourish and sustain the other.

Many of the ACCESS interns have gone down "crooked" paths to finally discover what their true talents were. My own crooked path began when I left the sheltered life of a girl with a disability. I struggled, determinedly, to find the relationships and the work that would make me happy. Science was the path that encouraged me to grow professionally and personally and to pursue all of my dreams.