Diversity of Thought Is Mission Critical

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This blog begins a 3-part series we’re releasing on disability diversity by guest author, Tracy Minish. Tracy has worked at NASA for over 36 years while legally blind due to a defect within the PRPF-31 gene. In this series, he shares his perspective on how to handle disability diversity as a Christian leader. This blog focuses on the challenges Tracy has overcome, how NASA’s culture helped him succeed, and advice for organizations looking to implement diversity efforts in their organization. You can read Tracy’s full bio here.

Last year, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo mission that landed humans on the moon and brought them back to Earth safely. As great a man as Neil Armstrong was, we could not have accomplished this historic feat if NASA’s workforce had been made up entirely of clones of Neil Armstrong. It took a diversity of thought, different perspectives, and unique problem-solving skills to meet the challenge. Cloning is overrated. Diversity is underrated, but as Dylan wrote, the times they are a-changin’.

I have been legally blind since high school, and as someone who is visually impaired, I can tell you that people with disabilities are great problem solvers and bring unique perspectives that can add to any company’s bottom line. Problem-solving is deeply embedded in the DNA of people with disabilities. Technology has leveled the playing field for people with disabilities. With the tools I have, I can manage emails, review/edit documents, and create/pitch presentations as well and as independently as a sighted person. 

Employers, and society in general, are unaware that many of the limitations associated with disabilities are no longer limitations. With everyone teleworking because of the pandemic, it has given the visually impaired and blind an advantage over the sighted. The blind are already using assistive technologies, so Zoom and Microsoft Teams were quickly assimilated into our collective (a little reference to the Borg). In addition, there was a study that found audio cues like inflection, volume, and tone were a better indication when reading someone’s emotional state than visual cues like facial expressions and body language. The visually impaired and blind have trained their hearing to use audio cues for years, so who do you think has the advantage in this telework world where 80% of people using Zoom or MT are only displaying a photo or their initials? I vote for the blind and visually impaired!

People with disabilities do not want to be known for their perceived weaknesses, but for their strengths, not for what they can’t do, but for what they can do, not for their disabilities but for their abilities.

Failure Is Not An Option

Many, many years ago, when I met with my college counselor, she discouraged me from going into math and engineering because of my eyesight limitations. Being young and stubborn, I ignored her advice. I changed counselors. I graduated with a BS degree in Computer Science from the University of Georgia. Go Dawgs!      

When I moved to Houston, I sought out a new eye specialist.  After the exam, he told me I qualified for disability and his assistant could help me with the paperwork, kind of like I had won an award or something. I thought to myself, “rats, I could have saved myself 4 years getting this degree.” I got a new doctor.

And because of this tenacity, I have enjoyed a great 36+ year career at NASA, following in the path of Buzz Lightyear, going to infinity and beyond.

I thought I would share a little insight on my journey from limited sight to very limited sight. My eye disease is a progressive disease that gets worse over time. To hide my failing vision I went to great lengths. When I presented at Shuttle Flight Readiness Reviews (FRRs), I would fast starting at midnight so I would not have to try and maneuver out of the room for a bathroom break. These were sometimes 5-hour meetings. I would get there 15 minutes early to secure a seat with an easy path to the podium and I would memorize my charts, sometimes 30 plus slides. Finally, I would wait until everyone had left before I exited the room. 

When we had a management week-long “attack planning” session (some call it a retreat, but there is no retreat, no surrender in NASA) scheduled in Galveston, my wife and I drove the night before to the conference location so I could learn every detail of the conference rooms in which we would be meeting. I learned where the snack machines were, elevators, and most importantly, the layout of the bathrooms; you never know who you are going to run into.

Overcoming Obstacles

Before I was able to disclose my disability, I had 3 challenges to overcome in my brain.

1) I didn’t want to ask for help. I thought I just needed to work harder.

I had to work harder and longer to keep the pace I demanded of myself because I didn’t want my productivity to go down.  Finally, I realized I was stealing time from my family to hide my disability.  Once I opened up to doing work differently, a burden was lifted.  The assisted technologies keep getting better and better, and as I stated earlier, these have leveled the playing field.

2) I was afraid my employer might start taking opportunities and responsibilities away from me.

Now on my worry that my management might take away opportunities and responsibilities. I told my division chief, I was looking for a new challenge after being the branch chief for Shuttle/Space Station for 5 years. He came back and asked me to consider being the chair of the Station GSCB,  responsible for setting up the interfaces with all our international partners. He told me it required extensive international travel, but if I thought I could handle it, he thought I was a good fit for the job. I love that he let me decide if I could do the job, and did not put a perceived limitation on me. I took the opportunity and traveled to Moscow, Tsukuba (Japan), Oberpfaffenhofen (Germany), Toulouse (France), Rome, and many other designations around the world.

3) I thought my teammates would start treating me differently.

Lastly, my concerns that my teammates would see me differently was unfounded; my colleagues, teammates, friends, all treat me with kindness and respect. I couldn’t ask for more.

So if you have a disability, I encourage you to take a leap of faith and disclose your disability. Even if you don’t need special accommodations, your disclosure can help your company and the government to have accurate records and get funding that may help others. I understand all situations are not the same, so this is a personal decision based on your work environment.

I believe my disability has made me a better person. It has helped me develop a unique sense of humor, and given me a heart for people who are not part of the mainstream. 

2 Corinthians, chapter 12:7-10  says, “. . . I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from  Satan to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me,  ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong!” 

In a way, like a movie star or a sports hero, I feel I need to be a role model for the disabled. I may not have fancy cars or bling, but the way I live my life may open the door for a future individual with a disability. Next time you see someone with a disability, think about their strengths.

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