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Access to Advancement, Part 2: Patricia Walsh

When Patricia Walsh first started working with Dr. John Gardner in Oregon in 1999, she was 18, and her familiarity with computers was minimal. In fact, she said she knew how to check her e-mail, with difficulty, and that was about it. Fast forward to March of 2005, when Walsh received her bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from Oregon State University. However, her start toward an engineering degree brought a big challenge when it came to math.

Patricia Walsh: I took this on firmly believing it would be an exercise in failure. I took this on thinking that even if I only last a term, I'll be so much happier lifelong if I try. And my first term did not go well, (laughs) but I came back and did a second term and did not fail my second term, which, I'm always so thankful that I didn't give up at the time when it really looked like I probably should have given up.

Allison Dunne: Wait, you failed your first term?

Patricia Walsh: I didn't fail, but I got, I mean, I was very close. I barely passed discrete math. I got a 'C' in my first computer science class.

Allison Dunne: Despite a semester she described as really bad, there was something that propelled her.

Patricia Walsh: I think it was a moment in time where I realized how badly I wanted to be an engineer, and how badly I wanted to know that I could be an engineer. I lost my vision at the age of 14, and, previous to losing my vision, I had been in advanced placement math class where I'd taken my high-school level math in seventh and eighth grade. After having not done math in seven years, trying to take discrete math was a really foolish thing to do because I hadn't done algebra in seven years. So I had to swallow my pride a little bit and take some of the more base-level courses. And I was getting a lot of resistance from my some of my professors and some teachers and lots of my family and people I was close to.

Allison Dunne: That resistance and discouragement, she said, was well-intentioned, and meant to protect her from failure. By the way, Walsh did not start her college career headed towards engineering. She first went to pursue a degree in history and elementary education, but had to take a year off for financial reasons. She says it was during that year off, during the summer of 2001, she experienced a defining moment.

Patricia Walsh: Actually, in working with Dr. Gardner in that year, I had been at a conference, and a woman came up to me and started talking to me about being in engineering. And, I wish I knew her name; I would thank her today. It never occurred to me that any person in the world would have the confidence in me to be an engineer. Like I really thought, I mean, that was the turning point; that's when I thought it was off limits, and I thought that that was something that I just had to accept as a limitation. And I was just really trying to come to terms with that. And having one person in the world who was a random interaction who thought I was in engineering and saw that potential in me was all the motivation I needed to pursue it.

Allison Dunne: Patricia Walsh said, during college, Dr. Gardner made her aware of some research opportunities with AcessSTEM, a program directed by the DO-IT Center, or Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology, at the University of Washington in Seattle. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics; and AccessSTEM is an electronic community where applicants learn about STEM fields, and get staff assistance with things like finding a summer internship or getting involved in a research project.

Well, Walsh's project involved working with tactile graphics - researching how engineering and other STEM subjects, could be more tactile for people with low vision or who are blind. Tactile graphics are images, such as graphs and maps, meant to be touched, so blind people may obtain the same information that sighted people would get from looking at pictures.

Patricia Walsh: It was a fantastic learning opportunity for me both in leading a research opportunity, but also in gaining some confidence, and, hopefully, producing some information or setting an example that others can follow to also pursue science and engineering.

Allison Dunne: Walsh joined Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft in 2004, first as an intern. Now, she's worked her way up to being a program manager in Microsoft Ad Center, where she manages gathering requirements for new features, and oversees implementation and testing. She says overall, she's content with her job. She does, though face challenges at times.

Patricia Walsh: I had an experience awhile ago where there were some conversations going on that I wasn't involved in where they were determining if I could own a feature or not based on my disability. By the time I was informed that those conversations were happening and that I wasn't being involved, I was pretty upset about that because that's very limiting to me. And you've got people who are making decisions for you who likely, again, well intentioned, but maybe don't necessarily understand the tools you use, or don't understand the access you do have. And that's just a precedent you don't ever want to allow set. You do not ever want the work to be given to you based on your disability.

Allison Dunne: She says she was able to rectify that situation, and all her others at Microsoft, by pulling aside the key people, and talking with them about the information they don't have.

In addition to her career, volunteering is a big part of Walsh's life. She says she's passionate about work relating to the state of children with disabilities in third-world countries. She visited the Philippines and worked at an orphanage there in 2007; and, in 2008, she volunteered at a home for students with disabilities in Peru. In her home base of Seattle, she has a few volunteer efforts. One is at Seattle Children's Hospital, where she was a patient in 1986 and had a brain tumor removed - the initial cause of her vision loss. She volunteers at the hospital every Sunday, in the playroom, working with kids to give their parents a break for a few hours. In addition:

Patricia Walsh: My final effort, which is the one I'm the most excited about, is, I, last year, started an organization with a few friends of mine through Children's Hospital Guild Association, and we're called Daydream Believers, and what we do is we do fundraising for uncompensated care, so, that is any care that's not covered by insurance. That one's my baby. That's the one I'm the most excited about and the one that I plan on continuing in the non-profit space.

Allison Dunne: Walsh is not one for sitting still. She has run seven full-length marathons. She says it's important to have something in one's life from which to derive strength and confidence.

Patricia Walsh: I think it is crucial to have some sense of self. And the reason being, just to get off of the science and math a little bit, but just life experience...When I go to the grocery store, I have random people come up to me and want to talk to me about my vision, and when I go to the bus, I have random people want to talk to me about my vision. And I think it's very crucial to make sure that it's not your disability that defines you.

Allison Dunne: And she has some other advice for young women with disabilities considering pursuing STEM fields:

Patricia Walsh: Just keep your eyes and ears open for those opportunities that are there, and just don't be afraid to pursue things, and don't be afraid to put your foot in the door, and don't be afraid to get knocked down and get back up, because that's part of the life experience, and that's, I would say, that's just so key - to take those discouragements and accept that they're going to happen, and accept that they're going to be daunting every single time, but it's still worth it to come back. I revel in how much further I am now than I ever thought was possible.

Things in my world are fitting together so much cleaner and more comfortably than I ever thought was possible. I do not have a tremulous life. I do not have, what I thought adulthood with a disability was going to be like. And, if you had told me that 10 years ago, I just wouldn't have even believed you.

Allison Dunne: For 51%, I'm Allison Dunne.


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