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Kent Cullers

1950. Before there was a disability rights movement. Before there was a law that said all children with disabilities had a right to go to school with other kids on the block. Before parents could seek legal redress if they believed their school district was not offering a real education to their child with a disability.

In 1950, there were no screen readers and no refreshable braille displays. There were no TDDs in homes or airports, no closed-captioning on television. Few campus buildings had ramps or elevators. We did not have e-mail or the World Wide Web. No touch-tone phones. Among families, long-distance phone calls were mostly reserved for emergencies.

There was a sense of community, and neighbors shared information and loaned magazine articles over the back fence. People mailed letters to their far-away families; when they had troubles, they sought support and advice. Public and school libraries were an important source of information. And there were families who rejected the negative stereotypes and low expectations given to them by physicians and educators.

Wanda and George Cullers became parents in that era. When they learned that Kent, their first-born child, was blind, they were determined that nothing would prevent him from reaching his full potential. The physician said, “That poor blind baby, he should have died.” The Cullers, however, had a different vision. Thus Kent, who grew up to be a physicist, became one of the role models for the generation that was to follow, living proof that a person with a disability could achieve national and international renown as a scientist.

Kent Cullers is the real-life Kent Clark, the blind researcher in Warner Bros.’ 1997 science fiction thriller, Contact. The movie was based on Carl Sagan’s novel about humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrials. Sagan did his homework in researching the book and modeled Kent Clark after Kent Cullers. Cullers works at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) in Mountain View, CA. Cullers is the manager of Project Phoenix, the world’s most sensitive search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and is the leader of its signal detection team. Cullers, who is blind, actually auditioned for the movie role. But on the sound stage, that Ph.D. in physics from the University of California at Berkeley didn’t pull much weight. Kent Cullers lost the Kent Clark role to professional actor William Fichtner.

In the following narrative, Wanda Cullers shares thoughts about the combination of intellect, perseverance, and family that helped Kent along the path to his career in the pre-ADA era before legislation leveled the playing field for individuals with disabilities.

In his mother’s words

We realized Kent was a genius before he was a year old. Keep in mind that I’m the mom, and may not be the most impartial source. But he was an extraordinarily gifted child. He learned to talk early on, and was unusually aware and interested in everything. Kent would notice the difference in the shape of doorknobs, and wonder why. By age one, he could tell the difference between all the fruits and vegetables in the produce market. We had a pegboard, and Kent learned the alphabet from that by age four. He could tell time at age three. My husband, George, and I would read him those Golden Books, the children’s books. Kent would memorize and recite the whole text when he was two. Kent’s father passed away a few years ago. It was a real partnership in raising Kent and his younger sister.

Kent was born premature while my husband and I were students at the University of Oklahoma. Premature babies often have immature lungs, and the baby can’t breathe normally. In the 1940s and 50s, they treated preemies with 100% oxygen. Later, doctors realized that it could cause a condition, retrolental fibrophasia, which scars the retina and damages vision. Kent was four months old when we found out he was totally blind.

We treated him like any other child. We knew Kent would be living in a sighted world, and we wanted him to function in that world like everyone else. No one lowered expectations. We also had an extended family that was very strong. At that time, we lived in Oklahoma, and Kent went to a private kindergarten. I had to convince them to accept him, but they did. It was good, because we had friends whose children went to that kindergarten, and Kent stayed with his friends.

A family move for mainstreaming

After kindergarten, we moved to Temple City, CA, so Kent would not have to go to the School for the Blind in Oklahoma. I had read about Temple City in an article in The Ladies Home Journal and the services they offered to mainstreamed students who are blind. They didn’t use that term, “mainstreamed,” in 1955. “Integrated” was the word then. The idea of including students who were disabled as a part of the general school population was brand new. About 1% of the school population in Temple City was blind.

Dad was an engineer with the Halliburton Oil Well Co. in Oklahoma. He had corporate support, and we moved to California in 1995. Later, George worked in the space program for North American Aviation, which became Rockwell International, which became Boeing.

Everyone in Temple City was terrific – the school, the principal, the staff. The California neighborhood was good. Kent was expected to do everything that other kids did. He had such determination and persistence. He learned to ride a bike and use roller skates, and then went up and down, up and down, up and down the sidewalk until he was perfect. We returned to our extended family for vacations.

A determined mom

I wanted to avoid having Kent think that he would get a free ride because he was blind. Oh, I was hard on him sometimes. I remember one time in 1st grade when all the neighborhood kids were playing with toys in our yard. It got dark. They went home and Kent came inside. “Where are all your toys,” I asked. “Outside in the yard,” he answered. “Well, I said, don’t you think you should bring everything in?” He came back in with his little arms just loaded with trucks and things. That was the last time he let those kids go home without picking up the toys.

One day Kent came home and announced that when he was 16 years old, the state would give him $80 a month. “Oh,” I said. “What for?” “Because I’m blind,” he said. I told him that he shouldn’t expect to get anything just because he couldn’t see. If he wanted money, he would work for it. He kind of shook his head side to side and said, “Oooookay, mom. Let’s drop the whole thing. I’ll work.” He did, too. One of George’s colleagues had a small business, and Kent put together spring-loaded holders for electronic components – so many for one cent each. In high school, he tutored other kids for $3 an hour.

Kent’s teachers had the same attitude, and it was really very positive and caring – although it may seem hard now. They never treated him like he was blind. He was treated like any other kid. One time in 2nd grade, another boy was bullying Kent in the schoolyard. It went on for a while, and then one day Kent got his hands on the bully. There was a fight, and the teachers were there watching, and they let it go on for a while. That boy never picked on Kent again.

Parental involvement

In elementary and high school, I always made a point of getting to know the teachers and principal, and I was active in the PTA and other school programs. It really helps if the teachers know you, and know that you’re there supporting your child.

Sister Mary Mark from Immaculate Heart College gave him piano lessons. They knew braille music. Kent learned music theory and played for his own enjoyment.

Our daughter, Susan, was eight years younger. There was no jealousy. No sibling problem. When Kent came home from school, he would give Susan her bottle and play with her. They were really close. From about 12 on, Kent was an amateur ham radio operator. He had all kinds of equipment, and kids from around the neighborhood would come in and be amazed at how they could talk to people thousands of miles away. Susan would be there, too, in that “inner sanctum” with the older kids.

Kent had devoted teachers. For example, when he was in 12th grade, his calculus teacher at Pasadena City College sought out computers so Kent could be a programmer. Kent listened to early morning TV. UCLA had a program at 6:30 in the morning. He read voraciously – anything that the Braille Institute had. I remember Gone with the Wind – volume after volume after volume in braille. He loved mysteries and science fiction. Later, he graduated with honors from Pomona College in Claremont, CA. All his math books had to be brailled. It was a big frustration to discover that many texts, especially the math texts, were unavailable in braille.

I wrote letters all over the United States to find braillists with whom we would connect as the transcriber. There were not that many braille transcribers who could transcribe higher level math, so we did a national search. We, the family, paid out-of-pocket for those services. But Kent was charming! He always thanked the braillists. The family found out about assistive technology. And the family paid for it. The schools knew about everything up through medium tech. At that time, there was no Optacon, no Versabraille. That changed about 1971.*

College

When Kent went to Pomona College, dad made maps of the campus with toothpicks and glue. This is medium tech. Our goal was to make him independent. We bought his electric typewriters when he went to Pomona. He started early on in independence – went alone for haircuts, etc. Once someone saw him walking alone and said, “Sir, you are in the street!” Kent replied, “Madam, so are you!” The “travel training instructor” taught him to walk alone to school.

The state paid his expenses at Pomona College. At age 16, he became a client of the Vocational Rehabilitation Department of California. He had a good counselor who accepted the fact that Kent wanted a private college, and they paid for it. They also paid something for graduate school at UC – Berkeley. Kent received several scholarships and was a National Merit Scholar.

At Pomona, he knew he would get an advanced degree in the sciences. Both parents went to college, and we assumed that the kids would go to college. There was no question about that. I wanted him to go to grad school at Stanford, but he chose Berkeley. He was a research assistant in the physics department at UC – Berkeley while he was getting his Ph.D.

Life has not been easy for him, by any means. Kent’s first wife, Carol Powers, died very suddenly when their two children were preschool age. During the year that Kent was widowed, Susan, George, and I helped with the children. In a year, Kent married Lisa, a filmmaker and artist, who was making a film about him. But his outlook always has been so bright and positive. I asked him a few years ago if he ever felt bad because he was not like other kids. He laughed and said he sometimes felt bad because other kids were not like him.

There’s never been a day I wasn’t proud of him – not because of his accomplishments, but because he’s such a nice person. Kent always had a pleasing personality, and I think that was important in his being accepted and successful.

*In the early 1970s, Dr. John Linvill, professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University, developed the Optacon, originally for his daughter, Candy, who is blind. The user could scan a page of print with an electronic wand, line by line, and feel the shape of the letters by touching an electronic device in the other hand. The Versabraille was a further refinement, which allowed the user to make notes and go back to retrieve written materials. In the 1980s, screen readers attached to computers began to give persons who are blind a choice of voice or braille output; however, there are still limitations regarding graphical – user interface. As the Internet and CD ROMs were increasingly used as learning tools in addition to science and math textbooks during the 1990s, new opportunities and new barriers were presented to users who are blind. Currently, the National Science Foundation is funding dissemination of guidelines to make web pages accessible. Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic is producing electronic books in digital form that give readers navigational options not available in traditional cassette recordings.

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