Reid My Mind Radio – A Girl From the South Who Made Her Way to NASA

A picture of Denna during a keynote presentation.
Continuing from the last episode “Black on Audio Description” I present our interview with Denna Lambert. The modern day “Hidden Figures.”

This episode highlights her journey including lessons for those pursuing their own goals, advice for those in positions of power and notes the various ways aspects of identity intersect with blindness or disability.

Before you blast off and hit play, remember, now’s the best time to go ahead and subscribe to the podcast to make sure you don’t miss an episode.

Ok, 5, 4,3,2,1… hit play!

Listen

Resources

Transcript

Show the transcript


TR:
What’s up Reid My Mind Radio family?

If this is your first time here, welcome. My name is T.Reid. Today’s episode to some extent is a part 2. However, it’s ok if you listen out of sequence.

Talking about sequence, we have to start with the theme music.

Audio: Reid My Mind Radio Theme

Raven:
Last time on Reid My Mind Radio.

Audio: Final closing segment from last episode “Black On Audio Description.” Screen reader reading the email signature which revealed Denna worked for NASA.

TR:

Last time, I introduced you to Denna Lambert.
Denna took part in a continuing discussion around audio description and cultural competence.

When I learned Denna works as a project manager for NASA, I wanted to hear more about her journey. And that’s exactly what we do here at Reid My Mind Radio.

We meet interesting people doing things that often challenge stereotypes and expand on what it means to be a person who is blind or lives with a disability..

The experience of blindness is unique to each person. Impacted by all aspects of an individual’s identity. Today, I get to introduce you to Denna Lambert. Her personal journey takes us through the experience of blindness as a Black woman from the South.

DL:
I was born with congenital cataracts. It was hereditary. It’s on my dad’s side of the family he is also blind. He grew up in the days the schools were segregated
when his parents found out he was blind, they sent him to the School for the Blind. You know the Negros School for the Blind.
TR in conversation with DL:
Ok, where was that?

DL:
Arkansas.

TR in conversation with DL:
Was it actually called The Negro school for the blind?

DL:
Yeah, yeah.

## TR:
RMM:
Audio: RMMRadio Announcement – part of intro
For further exploration of growing up in a segregated school for the blind as an African American,
take a listen to a past episode titled:
[At the Intersection Between Black & Blind](http://reidmymind.com/reid-my-mind-radio-at-the-intersection-of-black-and-blind/)

spoke with Robert Lewis who attended the Maryland School for the Blind both pre and post segregation.

Now, back to Denna discussing her father’s experience.

DL:
My dad graduated I think a year or two before they desegregated schools. If you remember like the Little Rock Nine this was all in Little Rock. he felt like
if they integrated schools then he would have been in this environment where he would have been vulnerable and in danger.

## TR:

The Little Rock Nine refers to the group of nine black students
who were the first to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September1957.

They were greeted by the Arkansas National Guard called in by the governor. Along with some pretty angry & racist residents.

Audio from archives of this event.

Our life experiences are impacted in some way by the generations that
come before us.

The lessons learned by our parents help shape our own lives.

For example, Dena’s father had more information about cataracts and was aware that his new born should be examined early.

His experiences as a black and blind man in the blind school system framed decisions made on behalf of his daughter.

DL:

And this is again kind of like a testament to him. just knowing that in order for me to receive services he had to ultimately face the very people that I think he feared and distrusted the most. Most of the professionals were white and came from the school for the blind that he said he was going to avoid. And that’s what pushed his decision that I attend public school. versus the school for the blind – which I’m really glad they did.

TR in conversation with DL:

The people that you were interacting from the blind school, were any of them blind or were they all sighted folks?

DL:
All of the TVI’s, the early intervention people, the O&M, they were all sighted. and white.

TR:

Children observing and identifying with adults in their environment often serve as early role models. It can make a real impact on what they themselves aspire to reach in their own lives.

In other words, that question what do you want to be when you grow up can really change based on what a child believes is possible.

DL:
My music teacher, I took piano lessons from first grade on up to when I graduated, so that was actually my Dad’s principal. He did teaching on the side after he retired. He was kind of my first person who was blind who read Braille, used a cane , he took public transit. I was like woh I want to be like him because I was partially sighted so I didn’t know Braille. I saw that he could read, he wasn’t[‘t shuffling with his feet. I was like what is this? It definitely taught me that hey you know blindness doesn’t have to be something that you have to hide. Which is something that I think my Dad had to deal with because I think the thought was if you have any kind of vision then it’s better to pass as sighted then to just be who you are as blind.

[TR in conversation with DL]
Yeh, there’s a lot of people today who are dealing with that.

TR:

Of course, there is no substitution for having teachers who recognize a child’s potential. We see the fruit of those early seeds planted in the form of encouragement and support.

DL:
I went to public school from pretty much first grade all the way up. I had a really great TVI (Teacher for the Visually Impaired). She stayed with me from preschool all the way until I graduated. We still stay in touch now.

My parents couldn’t take off and come to the school and do the things, but my TVI she would. She was kind of like my surrogate Momma in a way. (Laughs) Which I know a lot of kids don’t get that kind of services.

TR:
Teachers of the Visually Impaired or TVI’s often work with students to
assure they have materials in an accessible format.
This includes Braille, large print or electronic.
They often serve as a child’s advocate in the school communicating with the child’s teachers.

Denna was fortunate that her TVI made sure to teach her how to do all of this herself.
Teaching her to be independent.

DL:
She really kind of laid the ground work for when I got to college. I didn’t necessarily need the DSS office as much as what I probably would have needed if I didn’t have those skills to do it on my own.

TR:
DSS office is the disability student services available to college students with disabilities – playing a similar role as the TVI in high school just no hand holding, figuratively speaking.

[TR in conversation with DL]
Where did you go to college?

DL:
I went to University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. So that’s in the north west portion of the state. My mom , she wanted me to stay close to home and study Special Education you know work with blind kids, but I was the one who liked tearing apart radios and light bulbs and you know just different things.
(Laughs from DL and TR)
I went in as an Electrical Engineering major. There were some minority programs that really were trying to encourage students of color to study STEM fields so I got a scholarship to Fayetteville and just went from there. It was definitely hard because North Arkansas, those programs would have that real conversation of do not be in certain areas after dark. You have to be aware of where you are in this part of the country.

TR:

We just traveled back to the intersection of black and blind.
There are still lots of places all throughout the country today maybe more places where people of color truly aren’t feeling welcomed let alone safe.

And as a Black woman who is also blind that safety is a real concern.

For now, let’s walk back across to the blind side of the intersection.

DL:
I was one of the first blind students in the Engineering program. There was some things that I needed to learn in that there weren’t a lot of books from RFB&D available in like the Physics and the Electronic magnetic classes and Circuits classes. That’s where I would have to work with other classmates or find readers – which was something I wasn’t quite used to doing. Everything from K through 12 wasn’t available, but since I was entering into this field where they really didn’t have a need for that then you kind of have to get used to making up stuff. (Laughs) You know to get it to work.

[TR in conversation with DL]
And a lot of that stuff is graphical based I would think.

DL:
Yeh, thankfully a friend of mine, well actually two of them. We grew up together in Little Rock. So Noel Romey, he was the first blind Chemical Engineering major at U of A. And then my friend Chris Nestru he was the first Computer Science major. So they were a year ahead of me. They were kind of that advanced team laying the ground work for doing tactile graphics and then they started building up a corps of readers or note takers that were either Physic majors or Chemistry majors who would be willing to take notes. In some of my Calculus classes s I would have somebody sit next to me just drawing on paper because I could see with like a marker. they would draw whatever the professor was doing on the board. I couldn’t see what was happening on the board, but that student would sit next to me and we would do it together.

TR:
Being a trailblazer isn’t easy.
Denna offers some consideration for professors who sometimes fail to believe in their students abilities.

DL:
I think when you’re in that early 18m, 219, 20 years of age and you’re one of those very few people that look like you’re going through the same thing, then it is easy to get discouraged when somebody starts casting their own doubt on your ability. I wish I could kind of go back and say hey, you have power in your position. If you don’t know how something’s going to be done, that’s fine but with that student say hey if engineering is about discovery you know and science is about discovery then let’s use that same philosophy in figuring it out with a blind student.

TR:
Quite honestly that attitude should extend outside of the university setting.
It’s good advice for anyone in a position of power

Denna was very clear to note that lots of her experiences with professors were quite positive.

Establishing relationships played a significant role in her success.
In fact, it was one such relationship with a staff member in the University’s Career Services department that helped lead to her eventually landing her job.

Not finding many companies in Arkansas willing to hire a person with a disability, this staff worker helped Denna attend a Microsoft sponsored conference as a student speaker. The conference was called Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities.

DL:

That was kind of becoming a thing. How do we increase opportunities. So I was invited to be a guest speaker. She helped me get a way to go. And that’s where NASA was (laughs…)NASA had a really good recruitment program.

[TR in conversation with DL]
Ok, so hold on. When you say that’s where NASA was , meaning they were one of the employers taking part in the conference?

DL:
Yes. It wasn’t so much recruiting, but they were ready to help me network with the right folks. So they were like hey, would you be willing to move out of Arkansas. I’m like yes!

(DL and TR laugh)

[TR in conversation with DL]
Hell yeh!

DL:
Yes!

(DL & TR laugh)

TR:
I’m sure Arkansas is a great place, but Denna was in search of opportunities that weren’t presenting themselves in the state.

And it wasn’t for a lack of trying. In fact, while she interviewed with NASA things didn’t necessarily go the way she would have liked.

The conference and conversation with NASA was in May 2003.

While waiting to hear back from NASA she completed her school work and graduated in December.

Her father discouraged her from going on to get her Masters in fear of her becoming a professional student. He suggested she get some work experience.

DL:
Finding a job was my job (Laughs…)
[TR in conversation with DL]
Yeh! Did you have any other prospects at that time?

DL:
I was volunteering for some nonprofits. Helping them with some data management now we call it analytics. I had that programming background. I was trying to keep busy and keep my skills up but unfortunately it wasn’t paid positions but I think that was helpful because I had to get dressed, take a bus and go somewhere. Staying at home, it was easy at the time to spend all day on those blindness listservs. The days can just go by and you know one day will turn into one week and one week will turn into a month and then it will just cascade into a longer period of time where you’re not being productive.

TR:

There’s lots of benefits gained from volunteering.
The work experience, increasing your network and even the possibility of leading to a paid position.
Yet, Denna found value in the mundane.
DL:
Getting dressed, doing my hair, going on the bus even if it was just 4 hours a day of volunteering. That’s what I did. It just helped.

TR:

Finally, in May 2004, Denna received an offer and a word of advice from her father.

DL:
When NASA sent the offer, he was like you got to go because there’s nothing here.

TR:

And that’s what she did.

[TR in conversation with DL:]
You’re the current, modern day Hidden Figures? (Laughs)

DL:
A little bit! There’s a lot of us at Goddard and at NASA that we’re the first in our generation from our families to move away or…

[TR in conversation with DL]
Which us are you talking about?

DL:
Us as in Black Women or Black men.

TR:

Notice how quickly the shift occurs between identity.

Hidden Figures is the 2016 film that is based on the lives of three of the African -American female mathematicians known as the “human
computers”, tasked with calculating
the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, and guaranteeing his safe return.

DL:
I saw Hidden Figures 5 times.
Those are the grandmothers of NASA. We’re here because of them.

[TR in conversation with DL]
For sure!

DL:
Just to see how true to what the work environment is like. That was pretty amazing to see. That whole thing where she’s running 30 minutes from one end of the campus to the other – that is very true because even at Goddard, our campus is 1600 acres of land. We have three shuttle buses that take you from building to building. She was walking in high heel shoes. And they did have that, they did have segregated areas. There still are some things that need to be changed but it definitely improved a lot because of them.

[TR in conversation with DL]
So what about from the perspective of blindness?
DL:
there have been blind people at NASA for quite a while. Either in the programming or Electrically areas, because Electrical engineering can be very theoretical in addition to tangible or hands on. There’s a guy, Marco Midon I think he started in the 90’s I think working at NASA. Bob Shelton started in the 80’s. So there’s definitely been some folks around. I think NASA has because of the really ugly history that they have to confront and deal with diversifying the astronaut core and the work place with Katherine Johnson and stuff, I think it helped to pave the way to having more robust diversity programs where they intentionally went out to conferences like NESBIor SWE, Society of Women Engineers, or SHPE – Society of Hispanic Engineers.

TR:
Denna began her career at NASA as a Contract Specialist working with the Engineering group.
Active in building her career Denna realizes the importance of having a diverse set of skills and knowledge base.

She’s currently working as the Coordinator of the Goddard Information and Collaboration Center

DL:
A lot of my job honestly is meeting with people, talking with them getting their ideas and putting it together. It could be environmental folks, science folks, budget. You have to work together as a team and that’s definitely been interesting experience being the young Black, Blind woman in the room leading the meeting. (Laughs)

[TR in conversation with DL]
Yeh, That’s exactly where I was going because I see the technical and the people side challenges. Talk about those.

DL:
Yeh. I think one advantage of being blind if I could say there is an advantage is getting people to verbalize what their thinking. If I hear a pause in something or I hear a change in tone then I can say hey, it sounds like something’s there, let’s talk about it. My team knows I am a very verbal person. If there pointing and saying here and there, you know they’ve adjusted to know that hey we have to talk it through. It’s been interesting to see them adapt. I think they’ve seen the benefits.

TR:

While there have been many advancements in technology, the fact remains, blind people need a set of tools to help effectively manage different aspects of their lives.

As a user of the access service system Aira, not only does Denna find it helpful in accessing documents but its playing a real role in her ability to both better do her job and manage her career.

NASA holds regular open sessions where employees with various expertise offer presentations. The idea is to help share information and give a chance for seemingly unrelated divisions to possibly find synergies – or ways to help one another.

For those who are blind, such a conference can require some planning.

That’s where Aira opens up more possibility.

Aira provides that flexibility enabling blind people to have something often overlooked by many; spontaneity.

DL:
I don’t have to kind of plan a couple of days ahead of time to contact the coordinator to get access a document or whatever. I can show up to those sessions and have AIRA to describe it so it makes it more efficient. They can describe what’s happening, the information on the screen. They can help me kind of find people. (Laughs) So like hey, I want to go talk to that speaker. So while I can do that on my own they can say ok this person is 30 feet in front of you but they kind of have a line … or they can let me know how to navigate to that person . It’s given me that extra edge that I could easily miss those opportunities if I didn’t have it.

TR:
Denna isn’t always consumed by her work.
She has lots of other interests.

Like traveling.
In fact, when first scheduling our interview
Denna was on her way to her first Travel Eyes vacation.

Travel Eyes founded in 2004 by a blind entrepreneur, Amar Latif.
As noted on their website, they’re the first commercial tour operator providing independent travel for
people who are blind or partially sighted.

Blind travelers can sign up for a trip without worrying about needing a guide. Sighted travelers receive a discounted trip in exchange for
guiding and describing the sights to the blind travelers.

Denna says she had a wonderful time on a cruise but offers a word of advice for blind travelers.

DL:
That’s where the day to day experience of being guided by someone who is sighted can vary widely.

TR:
For more local fun and activity, Denna has and rides her own tandem bicycle.
She discovered her own way of finding pilots or the rider in the front steering the bicycle.

DL:
There’s different tandem groups. Most of them have married people , older couples that think they want to ride a bike. And usually it’s the husband that wants to ride the bike and the wife she may think it’s a good idea but then she’s like no I don’t know if I can trust him that much.

That’s how I’ve been able to find some pilots. So my first pilot he was a corporate lawyer. He’s a little crazy, you know he’s a good guy but he taught me how to ride.

(TR Laughs!)

TR:

Currently, Denna’s in the process of starting a family of her own.

DL:
When I started having these conversations of you know I’m 37 years old I definitely would love to be married, find the person and stuff but that just hasn’t happened yet. (Laughs)

When you start to turn past 35 people get a little crazy like ” Wooh so when do you want to start having children…

[TR in conversation with DL]
Yeh!

DL:
That pressure is on. When I would have these conversations the medical community would be like well you know can you handle this, you know with you being blind. So there was a lot of that extra doubt whether I could be as capable of a mother as someone else.

I looked into fertility. They have the technology now if you’re condition is hereditary they can weed out. It’s cool that they have the technology, personally, that was kind of getting into the playing God part so it really didn’t feel right.
If God were to allow me to have baby that’s blind or whatever, you know to me that’s a blessing.

Audio: “Rebirth of Slick” (Instrumental)

TR

In telling Denna’s story, I made a choice to highlight the various aspects of her identity and specifically note how they intersect with blindness – which in itself is just one part of her experience.

I never know what a listener is going to take away from an episode.

I could only hope that those who listen to the podcast don’t see guests like Denna as the exceptions. Rather they see the opportunities that Denna both made for herself and was fortunate enough to receive. Realizing that small differences could have truly changed the trajectory of her life.

It’s probably fair to say that opportunities for black women in Arkansas are not as great as in other parts of the country. And even exploring those available in so called progressive cities we know they too have their own set of challenges attached that other groups don’t experience.

Now add disability to the mix.

I think about listeners who themselves may be experiencing vision loss as an adult.
Denna’s experience and the benefits she notes of volunteering stand out as good advice. Not only for those seeking employment, but even older adults no longer in the job market. In fact, that advice was applicable no matter a person’s disability status.

Every now and then I’m reminded of the first time I heard the phrase cool blind people. I struggled with it for a while because inherent in the term is a separation. It’s an admission of sort that within the world of people who are blind, there are some that don’t qualify.

Truth is that’s true for every community.

The problem really is that too often society seems to suggest that the two could never actually go together. Cool and blind people. I know that’s not what those who introduced me to that term are saying. In fact, cool blind people are those who are living their own lives on their terms. There comfortable being called blind. They know it refers to their eye sight and that alone.

Being blind is just one aspect of who they are. They’re not trying to overcome it or excel in spite of it. They take it with them wherever they go. They wear it well. In fact, they make it look good. Any stranger or passerby who sees someone to be pitied or the receiver of charity, well like beauty, I guess cool is in the eyes of the beholder.

Denna she’s obviously one of the cool. So much that she sums up her story as just being a girl from the south who made her way to NASA.

I’m fortunate enough to have the chance to speak with several cool blind people here on Reid My Mind Radio. Hopefully, as I continue on my journey, I’ll get my cool blind card one day. It’s not something I want to receive based on proximity, I have some things I know I need to work on to make me fully qualified. I look at the RMM Radio alumni as mentors. Along with those I met throughout the state through advocacy work, I got this!

If you yourself are new to vision loss and want to earn your cool blind person card, I got you covered.
Subscribe to the podcast wherever you get podcasts; Apple Podcast, Google Play, Sound Cloud, Stitcher Tune In Radio. Of course you can go to ReidMyMind.com.

Big shout out to Denna Lambert. Thank you for two great episodes and I have a feeling we’ll hear from her again here on the podcast. We have more to talk about.

DL:
“He’s a little crazy!”

Peace!

Hide the transcript

Leave a Reply