Editor’s note: I asked Ed Summers, Director of Accessibility at SAS, if he would be willing to share his thoughts about the importance of STEM education after a recent forum in which he and others discussed how education can help those fighting disabilities to find success. Ed has made helping others his personal mission: To enable people to realize their full potential in the classroom and the 21st century knowledge economy. On “Giving Tuesday” earlier this week Summers described how science, technology, education and math, or STEM, have helped him overcome many obstacles. I first wrote about Ed in 2013. His faithful seeing eye dog and companion, Willie, was part of that story. Sadly, Willie died recently, but he has been replaced by Chewie, who now works at Ed’s side. I think you will find his story to be inspirational. Perhaps you, too, will be moved to give back. – Rick Smith, editor, WRAL TechWire.

CARY – Who is your hero?

didn’t have a hero when I was a kid.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Before the diagnosis, I wanted to be a soldier like George Patton. I wanted to live off the land on the wild frontier like Daniel Boone. I wanted to play football like Terry Bradshaw. But, all my heroes disappeared after the doctors told me I would lose all my vision.

When I looked for blind role models there were few to be found. The representation of people with disabilities in movies and TV shows reinforced the stereotypes. I still remember Eddie Murphy’s portrayal of a blind beggar in the movie Trading Places. It was one of hundreds of subtle impressions that led me to believe that my future was dark indeed.

Luckily, I was wrong.

It is true that I was born with a degenerative retinal disease. And, it is true that I have lost almost all my vision. But, I was also born with a stubborn streak that enabled me to simply refuse to accept the incorrect stereotypes of people with disabilities.

My interests eventually turned from toy soldiers and backyard football to math and science. I discovered a natural affinity for the logic of computers and I immersed myself in the field of Computer Science.

I developed skills to cope with blindness and it turns out that those skills made me a better Computer Scientist.

For example, in order to travel independently, I developed the ability to memorize the floor plans of buildings using a combination of deliberate exploration, logical deduction, and intuition. Those spatial memory and reasoning skills can be used to memorize computer source code. With practice, I learned how to debug computer source code and design the architecture of new software systems completely in my head without pen, paper, or keyboard.

My work in the field of Computer Science over the past 25 years has been rewarding both personally and professionally. I work on challenging problems that are important for humanity. I work with brilliant people. Due to the ever-increasing demand for talent in all STEM fields, I don’t have to worry about supporting myself financially. That is a blessing that was unimaginable 35 years ago. Back then, there were very few heroes for kids with disabilities like me.

Recently, more than 300 students with disabilities from across North Carolina came to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. They attended the 5th annual STEM Career Showcase for Students with Disabilities – an annual event that I started with Liani Yirka, another scientist with a disability and Head of Accessibility and Inclusion at the museum. During the event, the students met five role models with disabilities that helped the students imagine their future.

A global role model

One of those role models was Dr. Temple Grandin. Dr. Grandin was an early pioneer in the ethical treatment of livestock. In fact, about half the cattle in the United States today use equipment design by Dr. Grandin. As a result of her achievements in the field of Animal Science, Dr. Grandin was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2010.

Dr. Grandin has autism. She was non-verbal until she was three and a half years old. She said she was teased and bullied because she was a “weird kid.” As she shared her life story with the students in the audience it became clear that the source of her weirdness was also the source of her amazing achievements. And, she’s not alone. She provided examples of successful people with disabilities from a wide range of industries. Dr. Grandin reminded the students that, “The people with the Right Stuff rode the rocket to the moon, but the geeks and misfits built that rocket.”

Another role model at the STEM Career Showcase for Students with Disabilities was Dr. Amy Bower. Dr. Bower is a Physical Oceanographer at the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Dr. Bower is working to understand how ocean currents distribute heat between the Earth’s equator and poles. These currents are an important component in the larger system that drives climate change.

Dr. Bower is almost totally blind. However, that doesn’t stop her from leading research expeditions on ships that travel thousands of miles from land. She advised students to put down their iPhones and explore the world around them, “Step out and take a risk … something that seems a little scary could be a great experience.”

STEM Career Showcase pays off

We started the STEM Career Showcase for Students with Disabilities for many reasons. One reason is that, as a society, we all suffer when students with disabilities perpetuate the current trend of lower education and employment outcomes. In a free market economy, all of us are poorer when one of us cannot contribute. Given that approximately one out of every nine students has a disability of some form, there is a tremendous amount of human potential at risk.

Dr. Grandin articulated another reason when she said that we need all kinds of minds. The challenges and opportunities facing humanity require creativity and diversity of thought. The constant adversity of a disability can produce creative problem solvers that bring valuable insights to a wide range of disciplines. The role models at the museum are living proof of that.

However, the primary reason we created the STEM Career Showcase for Students with Disabilities is that every child deserves a hero.

(Note: WRAL TechWire thanks Shannon Heath of SAS for her cooperation in producing this story.)