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Kenneth A. Silberman, NASA Engineer and Registered Patent Attorney

Intro: Need proof that blind or visually impaired people are doing great jobs in the STEM fields? Then look no further. Read about someone whose job supports the STEM workforce of tomorrow.

Ken Silberman’s story will leave you with no doubt that people with vision loss can be very successful in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers.

Kenneth A. Silberman, NASA Engineer and Registered Patent Attorney

Ken Silberman, NASA Engineer and Registered Patent Attorney

The Story: My name is Kenneth Silberman and I am an Education Specialist for NASA. This means I help recruit NASA interns and help manage the online application system, correlating various statistics.

My focus is on recruiting students with disabilities for NASA internships, but I also do general recruiting. Additionally, I refer many folks to the personnel department because they are really looking for jobs, not internships. Recruiting is done online and on the phone throughout the fall and winter. I prepare reasonable accommodation requests for summer interns with disabilities in coordination with the student, the Equal Opportunity Programs Office, and the engineers and scientists who host the Summer interns. The students are always in charge of selecting their own accommodations with support from the other parties. I also follow up with the interns with disabilities throughout the summer to make sure things are going as they should.

Managing and organizing education outreach events for NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center, collaborating with folks from the Education Office and from all over the Center is another responsibility of mine. For example, I’ve organized an aerospace education program for the Civil Air Patrol, a week-long camp for students from the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, served as the technical officer for the NFB’s Youth Slam, and NASA’s principal investigator on the NFB’s 2004 Rocket Camp.

My work days are fairly typical as I work a normal day schedule. First, I come in and catch up on e-mails and voicemails, responding to coworkers and students.

During the heart of the recruiting season, in the fall and winter, I can sometimes be dealing with e-mails, voicemails, and phone calls all day and on weekends. Primarily, these additional contacts deal with students wanting to know more about the program and how to apply. Sometimes, applicants need help filling out the online application. I help both students with and without disabilities fill out their applications if necessary. Most of the other contacts are from engineers and scientists who need help from me creating their internship opportunities in our online system.

Other things I do on a regular basis are spend a lot of time looking for organizations and students to e-mail recruiting materials that I create and prepare, such as recruitment letters for students with and without disabilities, an ever evolving list of frequently asked questions by applicants, and a recruitment PowerPoint.

Finally, I work with Education Office colleagues, engineers, and scientists to match and select applicants for specific internships. This involves looking at applications, internship descriptions, and funding sources. All of this and statistical data from the online system must be correlated and reported to NASA headquarters. Lots of meetings are also involved in this process too.

As mentioned, I work with engineers, scientists, professional educators, and administrative personnel on my job. As an engineer, I often serve as a link between the engineers and scientists on one hand, and the teachers on the other hand. Making it all the more interesting, I should point out that the professional cultures of the teachers and the technical folks are very different as are their knowledge bases.

To get my job with NASA I called the head of personnel at Goddard on a monthly basis for about two years. This person finally got me some interviews, and I landed a job, transferring over from The Navy department.

Tip: To get the best jobs you must be persistent and tell a prospective employer what you can do for the company, not how great you are. You might be the greatest thing since sliced bread; however, if you can’t fill a need, the employer won’t hire you. When you go on an interview, remember, a prospective employer isn’t there to meet your needs. Instead, you are interviewing to see if you can meet certain needs of the employer.

The trick is to go for jobs that satisfy you. This is not always possible, especially if you are just starting out without any money. Sometimes, you just have to suck it up until you get on your feet and do something that you don’t like in order to eat. This often happens with blind folks as the high unemployment rate in our community will attest.

As a working engineer for many years, I have been able to serve as a bridge between the educators, who are used to a school environment, and the technical folks who are used to the engineering and scientific world of Goddard. (Goddard is a government laboratory that conducts Earth and space science missions, builds spacecraft to support those missions, and flies its own satellites.)

Additionally, my computer skills have been invaluable in helping me facilitate use of the online application system while working with people trying to use it. All of my technical skills and astronomy background have helped me place students in internships that best match their skill sets. The interpersonal and negotiating skills I developed as an attorney, have helped me to foster productive relationships at work.

Eventually, I asked to transfer to the Education Office in order to help young people, especially those with disabilities, to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. I want the next generation of people with disabilities to have even more and better opportunities than I have had.

Being that I help students and engineers with the online internship application system my office is a mix of PCs and Macs. These folks also use a mix of Apple and Windows computers, so I have had to learn JAWS, Window-Eyes, NVDA, and VoiceOver in conjunction with Microsoft Office, specifically Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and Outlook. (It’s really nice to be able to walk up to someone’s Mac and just be able to use it!) I also use a BrailleNote Apex and an old Romeo RB-40 Braille embosser. And let’s not forget the ink printer so I can produce documents for my sighted colleagues.

I always have a slate and stylus handy for taking notes in a pinch. Regular typing paper works great as long as you don’t intend to keep the notes for a long time. Use Braille paper or an electronic note taker for long-term storage of notes. Electronic note takers are the way to go when you want to transfer notes to a computer. There are also a Perkins Brailler and an abacus in my office. Sometimes, it’s more convenient to do things the old way.

Remember, have as many tools in your toolbox as possible. This increases your capability. The new doesn’t replace the old. It just augments the old. For example, my old DOS knowledge comes in handy when I have to log into a Linux machine.

I still use human readers and scan print materials, but not as much as I used to, because of the availability of electronic documents online and via E-mail from colleagues. Kurzweil 1000 and OpenBook are also in my toolbox for scanning and reading with a Canon CanoScan LiDE 210 scanner, a HoverCam, and a PEARL Portable Reading Camera. The Draftsman, a Raised-line drawing kit from the American Printing House for the Blind (APH), is really helpful for graphics. Learning Ally and Bookshare are invaluable sources for accessible professional materials and my Apex serves as my DAISY player at work.

And, make sure you always have an electronic dictionary, thesaurus, and grammar book at hand because good writing is key to a successful career!

Don’t expect your employer to pay for your reasonable accommodations. Do ask, of course. The law may require it, but that doesn’t mean that an employer will do it. It’s not fair, but that’s life. You need your job, and it’s cheaper to buy your own gear and reader services than to file a lawsuit. Besides, using your own money gives you, not your employer, control over your accommodations. This means more freedom for you and less work for your employer. Employers often don’t want to hire a blind person because they think that it will be a lot of extra work and money. Getting your own stuff takes this excuse away. Plus, if you change jobs, your gear goes with you because it is yours!

My job provides a way of helping young people with disabilities come to believe that they can pursue STEM careers. The real joy is when I find out a few years later that they have done it! I truly like this aspect of my work. On the other hand, I really dislike the bureaucratic regimentation and duplication that makes it hard to get things done correctly and in a timely manner. It’s a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. The daily grind is also a real drain.

No longer do I think it is a good idea to only think in terms of a specific job or career path. You can start there, but one needs to be flexible, able and willing to adapt to different jobs and situations. This makes you more employable because you can do more things.

example, compare my education to my jobs. I have degrees in astronomy, aerospace engineering, and law. I now work in education for which I have no degree. I did work as a patent lawyer for NASA. I also worked as a computer programmer for NASA and the U.S. Navy for which I do not have a degree. I have never worked in the field of astronomy. But all of this knowledge from my education has served me well in my careers, especially in those for which I do not have degrees.

The workplace is becoming more and more fluid and people are often having more than one career as life expectancy increases. Gone are the days where you went to work for a company and spent thirty or forty years there until retirement. Teleworking from home continues to gain popularity. There are many virtual companies with no office. Through the internet people now work from their homes or while they travel all around the world.

If you are still in school, I say this: It is just the beginning. The most important thing that school can teach you is how to teach yourself. Even in school, you learn on your own. Professors and teachers help you, but you have to do the learning. You will learn a lot of stuff on the job throughout your career, especially as technology and knowledge increase at faster and faster rates in a highly dynamic work world.

The Contact: Kenneth A. Silberman

Note: Many student opportunities exist within NASA. If you are interested in learning more about these coveted opportunities please use the provided links below.

NASA Office of Education 2015 Fall Session Internship Application (Ends May 31, 2015)

More success stories about blind or visually impaired individuals working in STEM:

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