David Wright is a college-bound athlete who plans to study computer science at the University of Chicago
and pursue a gymnastics career. He would also like to be a pilot.
There's just one remarkable obstacle: he's blind. David lost his sight to glaucoma about four years ago. Even
so, he was vice president of his public high school senior class and recently missed qualifying for a state-level
gymnastics championship by one-tenth of a point.
That's right, one-tenth of a point.
And you thought you had challenges.
"Competing against sighted people when you're blind has its own satisfaction," he said.
"I didn't want people to look at me as the blind guy, but to say, 'He's cool, he's talented, he's got gifts.
He's got potential.' And at the end of my high school career, people knew me for who I was."
Grace Under Pressure
To meet David and his two colleagues, Grace King and Thien Vu, who spent five weeks this summer as interns at the
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is to be reminded that persistence and hard work can overcome almost any challenge.
Consider, for example, that Grace, who was born blind, was president of her high school student council, a
semifinalist in public high school forensics, and a competitor in track and wrestling.
She plays goalball, a game initially designed for World War II veterans. In goalball, two teams of three
blind or blind-folded players try to score goals with a basketball-size ball with bells inside it. They
track the ball by the sound it makes. A strong player can roll the ball at 30 miles per hour.
"And you can take it with your face, which I've done," said Grace, with just a touch of satisfaction.
"And it was really painful. But I stopped the ball. I was a center and I could defend very well."
At JPL, Grace compiled a report about a multi-sensory kit for enabling blind students to learn about
NASA's two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Her major is assistive technologies at Northcentral
Technical College in Wausau, Wisconsin, a field that uses technology to make things accessible to people
with special needs.
Helping NASA Provide Access to All
All three interns worked at JPL as part of the EXCEL program, jointly sponsored by NASA and the National Federation
for the Blind. EXCEL stands for "Excellence through Challenging Exploration and Leadership," and seeks to provide
blind youth with early employment experience in NASA careers. The interns were selected in a nation-wide search.
Three others worked at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center outside Washington, D.C.
JPL's EXCEL interns attended science and engineering meetings to plan the rovers' activities. They shadowed planners
throughout the process of building and sending commands to Mars. They also produced technical reports about ways
to engage blind people in space exploration. Thien wrote a proposal for "Mars Exploration Rover Exhibits for the
Blind." David worked on the "Mars Student Imaging Program."
The students carry Braille PDAs. They listen to talking software instead of reading words on a screen. To peruse
web photos, they listen to descriptions of each image that are now imbedded in web code on Mars sites. Over the
past year, in fact, JPL web sites have undergone a lot of "behind the scenes" adaptations to allow assistive
technologies to work better, as well as to ensure JPL is in compliance with federal guidelines for accessibility
(Section 508c of the Federal Rehabilitation Act).
Accessibility at JPL didn't stop at the computer screen for these students. John Callas, deputy project manager
and science manager of the Mars Exploration Rovers, escorted the interns on tours of JPL along with Mars Public
Engagement representative Connie Gennaro. Rover drivers Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu and John Wright (no relation to
David) showed them how engineers plan the rovers' paths and manipulate their robotic arms.
Callas gave the interns tactile images of the rovers that let their fingers do the walking. The images consist
of tiny, raised dots showing the spacecraft deck, antennas, wheels, and other parts.
The students also have tactile images of rover tracks in the martian sand and tactile maps of JPL for navigating
their own way around lab.
Deeper Insight Through Hands-On Work
Thien, who has deteriorating eyesight from a condition known as retinitis pigmentosa, plans to study
aeronautical engineering when he transfers to the University of California at Davis this fall. He would
have liked his JPL internship to last longer.
"In the beginning I had thought that they were going to place me in the corners somewhere and give me
simple, non-important things to do," he wrote. "Instead, I was involved in as much of things as I wanted
to be involved in. In other words, it was a blank canvas. All that is required of me is to merely ask and
let others know of my interests for what I wanted to do. If they could help out, they simply did, and if
they didn't, they would point in the most likely direction to go."
Getting out into the real world has given him a different perspective from that of many of his college peers,
he said, adding that he still has a lot to learn.
Don't we all ...
Oh, and remember that dream about becoming a pilot? David Wright has already looked into it. It's been done
in Ireland with the help of computer software. Whether in the sky or helping explore beyond Earth, the
EXCEL students prove that, with a little technology and a dream, anything is possible. That's exactly
the NASA way.