Aviation Pioneer with a Disability
When I was growing up in the midwest, I always knew I was going to be a very successful adult. I planned to become a scientist, a world traveler, and of course, a pilot! But most people believed I’d never be able to do any of those things, just because I couldn’t walk. I’m a polio survivor, and have used a wheelchair since age ten. Take note, folks: just because everyone believes something doesn’t mean it’s true.
I went on to earn degrees in biology from the University of Illinois, be a NASA scientist in Houston for 26 years, and now have a lovely beachside home in Hawaii. I’ve visited the pyramids of Yucatan and Egypt, been to Europe several times, and once traveled around the world in 30 days. And yes, I did become the first paraplegic woman to earn a pilot’s license!
To anyone with a physical difficulty, I say: find something you want to do, learn how to do it, and DO IT! Patience, perseverance and flexibility are the keys to success. Learn how to build teams of people to help achieve your goals, but never allow anyone else to decide what your goals should be.
And some fine day, you may decide your physical problems are no longer limiting your life.
So I can’t walk. So I ride instead. So what?
The following post was written by AAUW Vice President Patricia Fae Ho
In 1962, the prospect of working at NASA as the United States entered the space race would have been pure excitement for any young research scientist. Imagine the challenge of discovering the secrets of space travel!
For Charlotte George Smith, a job at NASA held the promise of fulfilling her childhood dream. Thanks to her undergraduate and graduate work in biological sciences at the University of Illinois, Smith was fascinated by the physiology of humans in space and eagerly anticipated the research projects awaiting her.
Cramming her belongings and her wheelchair into the family car, she set off toward Houston, unaware that she would have to wage tremendous battles against rampant sex and physical disability discrimination during her 26 years at NASA.
Stricken with polio at age 10, Smith was always tenacious and inquisitive, responding to challenges like a daredevil. She was unstoppable, even as she navigated herself around and over physical barriers. Supported in her intellectual pursuits by her family, she completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in record time, developing a strong interest in the aerospace medical field and contributing to two papers on heat acclimation.
Always independent and resourceful, Smith settled into life in Houston, driving herself and her wheelchair in her hand-controlled car. She discovered early on that very few provisions were made for wheelchair accessibility in the NASA buildings, and despite repeated requests, the agency was persistently slow with accommodations. At one point, Smith resorted to hiking herself up and down stairs on her rear end to get to her office.
But the indignity that stung most was watching male colleagues being assigned scientific projects and then being promoted ahead of her. Meanwhile, she was given trivial and condescending tasks like typing, filing, logging mail, ordering library books, and answering the phone. She was the only woman seated in the secretarial pool who had a master’s degree in physiology.
Hired as a General Schedule 7 (GS refers to the pay scale for government employees), Smith was promoted to GS-9 then reduced to GS-5 due to “a reduction in force.” Male employees with identical qualifications were never reduced in classification — indeed, several had risen to GS-13. In 1971, Smith filed a complaint of sex and physical handicap discrimination before the Civil Service Commission but received no judgment impacting salary or job ranking. In 1975, a federal district court judge ruled that Smith had been denied opportunities for advancement due to her sex and handicap and ordered retroactive promotion with back pay. This decision was upheld in the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1977, and Smith took pride in pioneering the Americans with Disabilities Act a decade later.
Throughout all these years, Smith had traveled globally on her own for pleasure and professional development and became the first paraplegic woman to earn her small-engine pilot’s license.
After retiring from NASA in 1988, Smith moved to Maui, Hawaii, where she has served on the county Commission on Persons with Disabilities and the Statewide Independent Living Council of Hawaii. I met her at the AAUW Hawaii 2012 state convention and purchased a copy of her memoir, Race the Sun! Quietly confident and unassuming, Smith continues to seek new outlets for her adventurous mind.