January 22nd 1998
Technician Aids Jet Engine Research
In 1987, a near-fatal car crash left him paralyzed. "I'm classified as a high para or low quad," Truskot explained. "I have paralysis in all four limbs and my hands are functional, but weak." Before the accident, he was training for an area triathlon - he rode a bike 15 miles and ran 10 or 12 miles daily, and swam two miles every other day. "When I came home from the hospital, my sports career was over and I put my shoes in the closet."
Truskot was hospitalized for five months. Before the accident, he'd earned an associate degree in electrical engineering technology, worked as a bench and field technician, and did circuit board repair. "I couldn't return to that job," he explained, "because you need fine motor skills - you have to pick up little resistors and capacitors. I have gross motor skills, which means I can only pick up large objects."
He began falling into a daily TV-watching groove, which alarmed him. "I had a lot of knowledge of electronics and computers, and I knew I was an ideal candidate to go back to work and school. It took me a little over a year to make the decision, but I finally called the Ohio Rehabilitation Services Commission."
Jim Cousins, who's since retired, was his vocational rehabilitation counselor at RSC. Testing affirmed that Truskot was a natural to receive training in computer-aided design (CAD), which is similar to doing mechanical design with a computer. "I wanted an accessible career and working with CAD was the way to go," he said. By January 1989, he was pursuing an associate of applied science degree in CAD at Lorain County Community College (LCCC).
"I was nervous about being back in class because I was in a different situation than before, but the college had services for people with disabilities and it was highly accessible." Because he wasn't yet driving, Truskot relied on family and friends for transportation. RSC assisted with his tuition, books and supplies. "Jim told me that once I completed the college program, I had to get a job," he said, "and that was my main goal - I'd do anything to get back to work."
After more than two years of study (including seven consecutive quarters without a break), Truskot earned his associate degree in 1991. A home computer provided by RSC greatly assisted in his course work. An outstanding student, Truskot was named one of the top 25 winners in a national scholarship competition sponsored by a CAD-related magazine. Unable to take a required machine shop class because of his disability, he'd substituted a technical drawing course, where he created the impressive set of house plans he submitted for the competition. "I was the only student at LCCC to win a CAD scholarship and that was a big plus for me," he recalled. By the time he graduated, Truskot was driving a van modified for accessibility by RSC. With his transportation situation in hand, he was ready to start a job hunt. "I graduated on Sunday and on Monday, I was out looking," he remembered. "I gave myself six months to find employment. I wanted a job that fit me whether or not I had a disability." Truskot threw his considerable energy into honing an already-impressive portfolio. "I had a powerful resume. I polished it and tweaked it and worked on cover letters."
No opportunity was left uninvestigated, no potential contact was ignored. He conducted an intensive letter campaign, scoured three newspapers' want ads and networked. "If a friend told me that XYZ Company was looking for people, I went there." RSC paid for postage on my envelopes, so every Monday morning, I was at the office with a pile of them. "One morning, Joan Pretzlav (RSC employer services specialist) handed me a letter from the Cleveland Federal Executive Board which said there was going to be a career awareness day at the federal building. I didn't really want to go to downtown Cleveland, but it was an opportunity so I knew I had to. That's where I heard about NASA." Truskot filled out a job application at the event and was called later that month to interview. "Hank Wroblewski (NASA Lewis Research Center branch chief) told me they weren't hiring but were looking for candidates. NASA has success written all over it and that was one contact I was going to keep, no matter what. Every month, I sent Hank a letter indicating I was still interested in a position."
Meanwhile, Truskot kept pursuing leads. "Through my letter campaign, I'd caught the attention of a company that dealt with powder coatings and turnkey finishing systems. They had an opening for a CAD designer and I got the position after two interviews. I went in to tell Jim Cousins I'd found a job, and it was the last day before he retired. He was a happy camper - he lit up just like a light bulb!" Truskot had achieved his goal of finding employment within six months of graduation. He started on Dec. 30, 1991. He quickly became proficient at creating CAD drawings for company salesmen to use with clients. It wasn't long before the owner entrusted him to do a three-dimensional depiction of an entire system for an important presentation. "I worked on it for about six weeks straight, every day and even on weekends, until it was completed," Truskot recalled. "When it was my six-month review time, I got a 30 percent raise! I couldn't believe it - I told my friends and parents that if I hadn't had a back on the wheelchair, they'd have been picking me up off the floor! Talk about a boost to self-esteem!"
Although he had no desire to job-hop, Truskot still dreamed of working for NASA and stayed in contact with Hank Wroblewski. One day, Wroblewski called and told him that the opportunity had arrived - a job was available. Truskot's employer was sorry to lose him but wished him well, told him the door was always open and sent him off with a party. It was a good career move for Truskot - the company went out of business within a year. NASA's Lewis Research Center in Cleveland (a 24-mile drive from Lorain) is a huge operation, comprising about 150 buildings. Primarily an aeronautic research center, some of its work has also been for the space program. Truskot joined the NASA team in September 1992. His impressive job title is Central Process System systems operator. "I remotely operate large compressors, exhausters, drying vents, chillers, dehydrators and valves to recreate atmospheric conditions for jet engine research," he explained. "I really enjoy it." The job is primarily performed in a control room, using text and graphic displays on a computer workstation, he said, which is part of the Lewis Process System distribution control system. The work area - with its dimmed lighting and banks of ever-changing monitors - greatly resembles the general public's idea of a NASA control room.
His arrival at NASA heralded more college for Truskot. "I was put in a four-year training program, two years of which were college, which I chose over vocational school." He took about 15 classes at LCCC and Cuyahoga Community College. Although he was still in contact with RSC and Counselor Darlene Krausher (who took over for Jim Cousins), NASA paid for all of Truskot's course work. After taking classes in steam plant operations, and geometric dimensioning and tolerancing, he received a third associate degree - this time in mechanical design. Not surprisingly, Truskot exceeded the expectations of his NASA training program by earning the degree, which wasn't a requirement. He's received numerous awards and recognitions during his years at NASA and is awaiting his fourth promotion. Active in Lewis Center's Disability Awareness Advisory Group, Truskot received its 1995 award recognizing the employee who best promoted advancement for people with disabilities.
"When I came aboard at NASA, they knew I used a wheelchair," he said. "We had to iron out some accessibility issues, like the restroom and the water fountain, and they put a little ramp into the control room." Truskot was subsequently featured on the cover of a NASA employment brochure and contributed significantly to its content. "I'm very pleased with my position here," he said. "My coworkers are super-talented, bright people. NASA's a great organization."
Even with his dedication to the job, Truskot's not too busy to advocate on behalf of others with disabilities. A long-time member of the Lorain Advocacy Board for People with Disabilities, he was directly responsible for the initial legislation to increase the fine for illegal parking in handicap spaces in Lorain from $10 to the $100 state maximum. He also co-wrote a brochure on disability etiquette and has been featured in local newspapers and national disability-related publications numerous times. In 1996, he organized, coordinated and participated in the NASA Lewis National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
Truskot admits that his spare time is nearly nonexistent. He's back in classes, with a new goal that he calls a "burning desire." "I want a four-year degree, because earning associate's degrees won't get you up the pay scale. I gave myself a year off from school and started with the University of Akron (through LCCC) for their automated manufacturing engineering technology program. I do a lot of studying - it's a good challenge and it keeps my mind young!" Truskot is pursuing the bachelor of science degree in the evenings and on weekends. He expects to graduate within two years.
He credits his success to attitude. "When I had the accident, the thought did cross my mind, "Why did this happen to me?" I don't say I was never depressed, but I think I've come to the point where I talk with people and they can overlook the disability and see the person... that's a skill in itself."
Someday, Truskot plans to build a totally accessible house (possibly from his own plans). Until then, he's busy with his job, schoolwork, caring for his cacti and building car models, a hobby he enjoyed before his accident. He's confident that the future holds promise. "I'm making five times more being employed than being on Social Security disability and if that ain't a motivation, you have to tell me what is!" he challenged. "Just because I have a disability isn't stopping me from going after my dream." He credits RSC with being "a real gift to me and part of my success in being employed."
The man whose personal motto is "I want to make a difference rather than be looked upon as different" once wrote the following as part of an essay for his CAD scholarship: "...I have learned not only to pick myself up where I have fallen, but to get up and "STAND TALL" and show the public that a severely disabled person can lead a purposeful and productive life... The bottom line is not whether you're able or disabled, the bottom line is ATTITUDE. With the right attitude, you can conquer and achieve any goal you set forth..."
Article Reprinted from: Snavely, Valerie. "Truskot's career lifts off at NASA: Engineering Technician aids jet engine research," RSC NewsNet, Jan./Feb. 1998, Vol. 14, No. 1, p.1 - 3.
Connect with Floyd at:Floyd.J.Truskot@grc.nasa.gov