One Giant Leap for Workplace Accessibility

Hearing U Employment Webinar
Three members of the AstroAccess team floating in space
Denna Lambert, Victoria Garcia and K. Renee Horton, Ph.D., float during the AstroAccess parabolic space flight on Dec. 15, 2022. ©Zero-G photographer Tasha Dixon

Important note: The webinar will now be held on Thursday, November 16 instead of the originally planned October 19 date. Please update your calendar accordingly and register if you haven’t already!


Just in time for National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) will present its next quarterly employment webinar on Thursday, November 16, 5–6 p.m. ET, presented by HLAA’s Task Force for Accessible Inclusive Employment. The online event, “Mission Possible: The Sky’s the Limit for Disability Workplace Inclusion”—based on the cover article of Hearing Life magazine’s spring 2023 issue—features a panel of astronauts and other professionals with hearing loss.

Pioneering zero-gravity space flight

It’s rare to see people with disabilities depicted as astronauts or rocket scientists, but one innovative nonprofit program is aiming to change that. AstroAccess takes a groundbreaking approach to promote accessibility in space exploration and increase STEM opportunities for people with a wide range of disabilities.


Group picture of entire Astro Access team
The entire team of AstroAccess Ambassadors and support personnel. ©Raquel Natalicchio

AstroAccess selected and trained more than a dozen “Ambassadors” with disabilities for a first-of-its-kind parabolic space flight that launched in December 2022. Participants included professionals and students with deafness, hearing loss, low vision, prosthetic limbs and mobility issues. As the spacecraft ascended to 25,000 feet and experienced zero gravity, the crew conducted in-flight experiments to investigate how space travel could be made accessible to future generations of astronauts, regardless of disability.

Disability exclusion in STEM and other fields

Why is this initiative so important? A 2023 report from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics found that, while 24% of the U.S. workforce is employed in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines, workers with disabilities represent just 3% of the STEM workforce. Causes may include a lack of role models for aspiring scientists with disabilities, negative perceptions about disability and inaccessible workplaces that limit opportunities for a person with a disability to succeed.

Although the situation has recently improved, these numbers reflect a wider trend in the U.S. workforce at large. In 2022, only 21.3% of the population of people with disabilities was employed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and unemployment rates for people with a disability consistently remain close to double those in the general population.

Shattering misconceptions in aviation

Photo of Sheila Xu with pilot license and glider
Sheila Xu stands in front of a glider holding her pilot license.

Sheila Xu is a pilot who is deaf and participated in the December AstroAccess flight. In a 2021 blog post for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on its Medium channel, she described the challenges she’s faced as a person with hearing loss in the STEM sector.

“Despite having a cochlear implant…I still encountered misconceptions and stereotypes of the deaf, much to my frustration. I also never had opportunities to connect with people in aviation, including pilots,” she wrote. “It never occurred to me that deaf people could be pilots.”

Xu will be a panelist on October 19, along with two other AstroAccess flight crew members who both have hearing loss and work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA): systems engineer Victoria Garcia and space launch engineer K. Renee Horton, Ph.D., who was the keynote speaker at the HLAA 2023 Convention. Also participating will be Larry Guterman, a film producer with hearing loss who serves on the HLAA Board of Directors and the AstroAccess Advisory Board; he authored the article on AstroAccess ambassadors for Hearing Life magazine that inspired this webinar.

No limits for disability workplace inclusion

Members of the AstroAccess team floating in space
AstroAccess Ambassador Michi Benthaus (center), a wheelchair user and aerospace engineering student, with retired NASA astronaut Cady Coleman (right), an AstroAccess adviser. ©Zero-G photographer Tasha Dixon

The panelists will discuss their career journeys as people with disabilities, their roles in AstroAccess and how the initiative is forging a path forward for workplace disability inclusion. Moderating the panel will be Theodore Shomsky, CPACC, a business systems analyst and disability access professional who volunteered with the AstroAccess team on the ground helping ensure the December flight ran smoothly.

“It was an honor to share a piece of an incredible and historic journey to bring universal access to the universe,” Shomsky said.

Shomsky is a member of the HLAA Task Force for Accessible Inclusive Employment, which organizes quarterly webinars that share success stories and provide employment-related information and resources to people with hearing loss. The webinars not only empower job seekers with hearing loss to find and thrive in fulfilling careers, but also help employers tap into their knowledge, skills, and abilities.

As the AstroAccess panelists will demonstrate, when workspace accessibility is a priority, people with disabilities can soar to new heights and change the face of space exploration.

For information on upcoming webinars, subscribe to Hearing Life e-News.

Lisa Yuan

by Lisa Yuan.
Lisa works in public health, serves on HLAA’s Employment Task Force and volunteers with the HLAA District of Columbia and Montgomery County (MD) Chapters.

If you or someone you know has a hearing loss, visit for resources and to find a local chapter, or a Walk4Hearing near you.

For questions, contact HLAA at

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