In college, one of K. Renee Horton’s professors sized her up: “You are the dumbest student I ever met.”
Horton knew better. Having graduated high school at 16, she knew her brain was fine. But a hearing disability made it impossible for her to understand the professor’s heavily accented English.
That hearing loss had already eliminated the possibility of becoming an astronaut and led to years of struggle. Instead of being discouraged again, Horton took a hard look at how she would accommodate what she calls her “invisible disability.” The professor’s mistaken judgment proved to be a milestone in redefining her professional aspirations in a society that values conformity.
Now a quality engineer for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) – the rocket that will send Artemis astronauts and cargo to the Moon – at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Horton explained that being hard of hearing isn’t a problem – it’s her normal. She doesn’t need to be “fixed,” but she does have to deal with obstacles created by professional conventions designed for people with functional hearing and without physical limitations.
“When we have these differences, which are called ‘disabilities’ based on what society says is normal, we don’t fit,” she explained. “Once you don’t fit in that societal norm, then why do you have to be on a societal path? Most of the time I’m walking through the bushes to get somewhere I need to be.”
The tendency to downplay a disability is common, according to Horton, who ignored the effects of her hearing loss for a decade. But her desire to be successful made her accept her limitations. Then she could address them.
The results were all she hoped for – a PhD and a position with NASA. And she was getting along just fine until the outbreak of COVID-19. The pandemic forced a whole new level of self-scrutiny and creativity for Horton.
Finding the Right Tools
Horton’s hearing loss means she can only hear most sounds at high frequencies. She has trouble hearing sounds in the normal range of speaking. Two hearing aids make everyday conversation possible, and she lip-reads. A special Bluetooth headset on her phone pipes sound directly into her hearing aids. With a notepad and pen for colleagues to write things she can’t hear, Horton had all the tools she needed.
But the pandemic-related requirements to wear face masks and stand six feet apart, as well as meetings held in open, noisy spaces made hearing difficult again. Unable to fall back on lip reading, Horton was constantly asking coworkers to repeat themselves. She was concerned about missing vital information.
“If I’ve missed something, my input isn’t the right input,” she said. “Nobody really cares that I’m a woman. Nobody really cares that I’m Black. They care that we missed a milestone by a week. So being an engineer with hearing loss is the greatest thing that I deal with.”
NASA’s offer of special accommodations didn’t provide the immediate relief Horton needed. Like most employers, staff had to quickly address the unique challenges for employees with disabilities when COVID-19 changed the nature of daily interaction in the workplace.
The move to telework helped a little. Video chats made lip-reading possible, but not all of her meetings employed video functionality. In those instances, she could stream audio directly to her hearing aids. But as groups rotated back into the facility for a week at a time, alternative forms of communications became essential.
Horton never needed assistance during eight years with NASA, and supervisors didn’t know how to help. They inadvertently disclosed Horton’s disability in their efforts to find assistance. All of this cranked up her stress level.
But Horton gives high marks to the Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for finding the tools that now keep her working and safeguard everyone’s health. One is a handheld microphone that streams speech directly into her hearing aids. It can be passed around a meeting or used when talking to someone on the factory floor. Horton also has a special texting device so anyone can converse with her by typing.
While most accommodations are for individuals, such as a step stool for someone with a physical disability, Horton must involve other people by asking them to change their behavior.
First, she must disclose her disability before asking that someone use one of the devices or wear a special mask with a clear panel so she can lip-read.
Telling others that she needs assistance has taken getting used to and has surprised those who didn’t know she has hearing loss. Unlike a physical challenge that requires a wheelchair, a hearing impairment isn’t easy to identify. Uncomfortable situations can result, but have presented a new opportunity for Horton – educating her coworkers about disabilities.
It begins with a lesson in hearing, something most people take for granted without understanding it.
“People think the words that come out of your mouth are true words,” Horton said. “They’re not – it’s vibration, frequency, and tone.” These frequencies are translated in the ear into electrical impulses, which are sent to the brain and then interpreted. A person might say “bicycle,” but Horton hears “icicle.” Anyone with fully functional hearing can experience these linguistic mismatches, but for Horton it’s part of daily reality.
That difference and others can result in awkward silences. The solution is simple, she said – talk to her.
“My coworkers are afraid to even approach the subject because they think it’s going to be offensive. It’s more offensive not to,” Horton said. “Ask if I need help. Ask if I heard that OK.” Remembering a physical limitation, she said, is the same as remembering how someone takes their coffee or when their birthday is – a sign of respect.
The Helpful Insult
As a board member for Lighthouse Louisiana, Horton supports and advocates for the organization’s mission “to empower people with disabilities.” She mentors girls and young women pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. She also writes a series of science books for children called “Dr. H Explores the Universe.” This passion for education flourished, in part, because of her experiences in higher education.
Horton was the first – and to date, only – African American woman to earn a doctorate in material engineering with a concentration in physics from the University of Alabama. When she was invited to give the commencement address to the 2017 graduating class at Louisiana State University, she once again met that critical professor.
With a huge grin on her face, she said, “I know I’m the dumbest student you ever taught.” After he remembered the encounter, she refused to accept his apology, saying she wouldn’t have gotten there without him.
“That forced me to understand my hearing loss,” she said. “I don’t want to be the dumbest person in the room, and my disability could force me to be that. Not because I don’t have any intellect, but because I can’t hear part of the conversation.”
Horton is not only hearing the conversations at NASA, she’s making her own contribution to the space program. Even though she can’t fly to the Moon, she’s excited about making it possible for others to go on SLS.
“My NASA is America’s place of business because when we do something, the whole world watches,” she said. “I like the idea that I am capable of being a part of that. I don’t want my disability to be the stopper for me. I don’t want any disability to stop anyone else.”
By Margo Pierce
NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate