by Susan Povinelli
Susan Povinelli is one of the leaders of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia. She is also an aerospace materials engineer working for the U.S. Navy. Recently a group of Federationists, many of them engineers and all fans of the television program "Star Trek," organized themselves into a fan club.
The group chose as its name Geordi's Engineers, in admiration of the blind engineer in "Star Trek: the Next Generation." Susan serves as chief engineer of the club and works, among other things, to encourage blind people interested in careers in science and engineering to pursue their ambitions. Here is Susan's account of her own career as an engineer:
I imagine the reason most people enjoy "Star Trek" and "Star Trek: the Next Generation" is the series' theme of exploring strange new frontiers. Since I am a blind aerospace materials engineer, you might say that I am a pioneer in my own right.
Twenty years ago no blind person, and very few women, ventured into the field of materials engineering. This is the field which studies the physical properties of various materialsțsuch as metals, adhesives (glue), and plasticsțand uses them in engineering applications. Like the first pioneers who migrated to the New World, I also do not consider myself to be achieving anything amazing or out of the ordinary. It was just a dream that I wanted to fulfill for my own satisfaction.
At the age of seventeen I learned that I had retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative hereditary condition that affects the retinas. The doctors told my parents, but not me, that in ten years I would become blind. In their wisdom or their inability to accept my fate, my parents allowed me to continue to dream of a career in engineering. I enrolled in college and did all the usual things engineering students do, but my tunnel vision and night blindness continued to worsen.
It wasn't until I was about to graduate from college that I realized how difficult it was going to be to obtain a job in materials engineering as a blind person. Private industry did not want to take the risk of hiring a blind engineer. I weathered a period of self-doubt and gloom.
I wish I had known then about the National Federation of the Blind. In my moments of optimism, however, I kept dreaming of a career in engineering. Finally I was offered a position as a materials engineer with the Department of the Navy.
I do my job by using ideas I've come up with and by borrowing ideas from other blind engineers I've met through the National Federation of the Blind. Four years ago the Navy purchased a speech program to enable me to continue using my computer. Instead of reading the screen with my eyes, I can read it by listening to a synthetic voice. Such technology was unavailable when I entered college in 1978țexcept on "Star Trek" or in science fiction movies.
In my job I spend many hours preparing written correspondence, and this technology has improved the quality and quantity of my productive work. But with all its ad-vantages it has not taken the place of my many years of learning how to read and write.
This leads me to another obstacle that I had to circumvent. As the years went by, my eyesight continued to deteriorate. I was afraid of losing the ability to read and write. Without a method to make notes to myself, read recipes, write to friends, and read stories to my children, I knew I would have a very meager existence.
Engineers are practical people. There is an obvious alternative to being illiterate when you cannot see print. I began to learn Braille when I was in college. I had several classes, and the rest was just practice.
Today I find Braille very useful for taking notes during meetings, giving a technical brief, and living a very full life. Somehow I find time for my professional career, my fam-ily of an attorney-husband and two children, my responsibility as the secretary of the Potomac Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, and my work as chief of Geordi's Engineers.
My job has provided me with many wonderful opportunities to be resourceful and to reach for new horizons. I have had the opportunity to visit the flight line and get my hands on real hardware. I have traveled through many manufacturing and repair facilities. I imagine I receive strange looks from workers on the floor while the engineer shows me through the plant and explains the operations.
Like the U.S.S. Enterprise in "Star Trek," which boldly explored strange new galaxies to discover new worlds, blind persons of this and the next generation can explore job opportunities in the physical sciences and discover careers in engineering and mechanics.