DLA employee describes resiliency in face of physical challenges

By Cathy Hopkins DLA Aviation Public Affairs

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A DLA employee who is blind talked about being resilient in the face of daily challenges, in a presentation he gave to DLA Aviation at its recent Senior Leader Conference in Richmond, Virginia.

Noel Romey recently moved from working in DLA Aviation’s Engineering Directorate to a position in DLA Information Operations at Richmond’s 508 Compliance Office.

His wife’s father was in the Marines, he noted, and her family’s motto is the common Marine mantra, “Adapt, improvise, overcome.”

“When she told me [that], it was really kind of powerful to me, because that’s … what I do every day — especially with my new job, making sure people have what they need to do their jobs,” he said.

Romey, who was joined by his service dog Velvet, a black retriever mix, talked about how he learned to be resilient as a child.

“I have been blind since birth, though my parents didn’t realize it until I was about four months old,” he said. “It may appear as if I’m looking at you, but my eyes don’t track,” he said, adding, “I’m imagining what everyone looks like.”

Although his parents were at first devastated to discover his disability, they treated him as if he was a normal, sighted child, he noted. They labeled everything in the house by the time he was two years old — just as parents do to teach letters to sighted children, but Romney’s parents used Braille.

Growing up, Romey was very interested in chemical engineering, he said. However, “my chemistry teacher was a very visual teacher and would frequently point at visual things on the board that I couldn’t see,” he said. “It got to the point where I told her, ‘If it’s going to be like this, I’m never going to do chemistry.’

The second semester, we started using models. And once I could play with those and get an idea of how chemistry worked in the tactile form, I was able to appreciate it. Then she made a comment to me that she may not be the best teacher for my needs, but I had the potential and the will to be a great chemical engineer.”

He became the first person born blind to get a degree in chemical engineering in the United States.

It took him eight years to get his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering, and he is earning his master of business administration degree.

Romey said he overcame setbacks in school by using technology, laboratory partners and Braille books, often carrying the books in a cart because of their weight. “I had a Braille organic chemistry book that was 80 volumes,” he said. “Now, a lot of things are done with refreshable Braille, and you can store a whole book on a secure digital card.”

Although his initial goal had been to become a chemical-plant designer, Romey faced resistance from civilian employers. “I think it was because [they] weren’t willing to take a chance on me. They were not willing to do their part to adapt, improvise or overcome obstacles.”

He ended up working for DLA Aviation as a chemical engineer. Through the years, the agency found out he had an interest in technology and asked him to help technology working groups address employee-accessibility issues. But eventually, doing two jobs got to be too much, he said, so he applied for the job he now holds at DLA Information Operations at Richmond.

“It is really great working for the federal government; there is such a culture of acceptance,” he said. “It is my experience with people that most everybody accepts me for what I can do and it amazes me, how as an organization, we are able to use everyone’s skills and to adapt.”

In addition to being visually impaired, Romey has osteopetrosis; his bones are over-calcified. He’s had more than 30 bone-related surgeries. He broke his first bones, both femurs, at age eight. “Every surgery is a setback and a test of resiliency, because they basically put my life on hold until I recover,” he said.

“In my life, I take it one step, or (bone) break at a time, because changes in my life usually happen when I break things,” Romey said.

“I think every one of you and your employees have faced difficulties in life. I think as leaders it is important that you be as resilient in your lives as you can and to show your employees that we will make it work and this is how.”

“There are people I talk to who are visually impaired that aren’t as good at adapting as I am,” he noted. “I try to be an example myself and show them how I have adapted and made things work. Every day I’m improvising new solutions for people, especially in the last couple of weeks as I’ve started my new job.”

Romey said it’s not always easy to be flexible. “I like things to be the same sometimes and not have issues, but I’ve been forced to overcome and be resilient,” he said. “ And in doing that, I have succeeded and been able to go into a new job where I can help others,” he said.

“It takes courage to be resilient, and I think everyone has the potential to be courageous, embrace change and overcome difficulties.”

Romey noted that supervisors can help. “A really good supervisor is one that is able to deal with change. Every employee is different and has different life challenges. It goes beyond reasonable accommodations to having resiliency in your core and to adapting to changing situations.”

Romey was one of three speakers invited by Air Force Brig. Gen. Allan Day, the commander of DLA Aviation, to discuss how they practice resiliency.

(Note: This article is the fourth in a series of four on how DLA Aviation employees use the building blocks of resiliency to succeed in their professional and personal lives.)