Jesse Leaman: Spring

NASA intern

Jesse Leaman, NASA intern / Leaman Collection

Writing By Brad Rassler

reframing (rē·frāˑ·ming), n: the revisiting and reconstruction of a patient’s view of an experience to imbue it with a different usually more positive meaning in the patient’s mind. — Jonas: Mosby’s Dictionary of Complementary and Alternative Medicine

The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired. – Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time

The abruptness with which Jesse traveled from able-bodied athlete to quadriplegic is nearly impossible for those untouched by physical trauma to understand. William Bridges’ Transition Model is instructive here. To Bridges, change is a three-part process: Ending, Neutral Zone, and New Beginning. Bridges calls the middle phase the “Neutral Zone,” because it’s the long gray trail between the poles, where our former lives haven’t quite ended, and the life to be lived hasn’t quite begun. And it was squarely in the Neutral Zone where Jesse dwelt during his months of rehab at Good Shepherd’s, not having wrapped his brain around what had happened, and not entirely sure how his new life would play out.

The book that changed Jesse’s life.

And then a friend gave Jesse Stephen Hawking’s landmark book, A Brief History of Time. In Hawking Jesse recognized a fellow traveler with a brilliant mind who didn’t allow his physical infirmities impede his academic career; with wheelchair and voice synthesizer, and his prodigious intellect, Hawking became renowned as one of the world’s leading astrophysicists. Inspired by Hawking’s example, Jesse swapped his interest in marine biology, which had interested him because of its strenuous physical requirements, for astronomy – a discipline in which he could traverse space and time with his mind.

“You have to remember that I can’t do much with my body,” Leaman said in a recent conversation. “I can’t do very many physical activities for fun anymore. So thinking is a great escape for me. I can think about the universe, and all of these superenergetic phenomena, the vastness of space. But also I can really appreciate how special the earth is. We’re like an oasis in this vastness of space. It’s really something to appreciate.”

With his father’s urging and his entire family’s and community’s support, Jesse poured himself into reshaping his life.

Like Hawking, he’d need basic tools to compensate for what he could no longer do with his body. While in rehab, he learned to use an electronic page-turner, which allowed him to read books. Voice recognition software, Dragon Dictate, enabled him to use a computer. “Calvin,” a voice-activate environmental control unit, dialed Jesse’s phone, adjusted the thermostat, switched lights on and off, opened and closed doors. An electric wheelchair gave him mobility, and an infrared-equipped head brace allowed him to control his perambulations with nodding motions.

Due to a set of recently-enacted federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, Jesse would have both the infrastructure and support to return to school. First completed high school; he attended his senior prom and rolled through commencement with the class of ’96. Within another year, he was a freshman at East Stroudsburg University and began the rigorous journey of becoming an astronomer. At university, Jesse was given priority registration privileges and special classroom seating, and was assigned a small staff of note takers and scribes.

The community of East Stroudsburg rallied. A fund was established to cover some of Jesse’s medical expenses and to provide additional therapies. Money was raised for a wheelchair-accessible van.

Just 18 months after his accident, Jesse received a NASA internship sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He traveled to Huntsville, Alabama for a stint at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center — his first extended foray from home since his accident. It was at Marshall, after a weeklong seminar at the facility’s space sciences lab, when Jesse first glimpsed his future in astrophysics.

Jesse graduates from the University of Maryland

Graduation at University of Maryland / Leaman Collection

He relocated to  the University of Maryland’s program in astronomy, and eventually parlayed his first NASA internship into a second one, this time at the Goddard Space Flight Center.  A year later, he graduated from Maryland with a B.S. in Astronomy, and was offered a job at Goddard through NASA’s cooperative education program. Around this time, Jesse traveled to Washington on the 10th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act to testify before a Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

Jesse addresses the U.S. Senate Committee on H.E.L.P. on 10th anniverary of ADA / Leaman Collection

Jesse addresses the U.S. Senate Committee on H.E.L.P. on 10th anniverary of ADA / Leaman Collection

“By opening new doors for individuals with disabilities, the ADA has had a significant impact on improving the quality of lives for millions of individuals with disabilities,” he told the senators.

A social worker at Goddard knew of Jesse’s desire for an advanced degree, and recommended University of California, Berkeley for its strong astronomy program and its progressive policies with respect to disabled students. In fact, the city of Berkeley was and still is one of the most wheelchair accessible towns in the United States, and it is headquarters of the Center of Independent Living.

Jesse was accepted to Cal’s doctoral program in astrophysics under a Chancellor’s Fellowship. He packed his bags in the summer of 2000 to resume his career in California.

Berkeley and friends outside of Berkeley's Sather Gate. / Leaman Collection

Jesse and friends outside of Berkeley’s Sather Gate. / Leaman Collection