'Look at the abilities'

Education and hard work pay off for Goleta electrical engineer

Don Chan has always had the mind of an engineer. Any time he sees a problem, he seeks a solution.

In middle school, back in the late 1970s, he had trouble completing assignments quickly; he was born with cerebral palsy, a neurological condition that affects motor coordination. It slowed his handwriting speed.

Then he found computers. His school had the Commodore PET, and later his parents bought him an Apple II+.

“It was a real game-changer, because it made doing my homework so much easier,” said Chan, an electrical engineer at Raytheon Intelligence & Space, a Raytheon Technologies business. “I even taught some of my high school teachers how to use computers, including my biology instructor who I wrote a simple program for, which helped him in the classroom.”

Chan is among the company's advocates for employees with disabilities. For the past seven years, he has served as the site director of the Raytheon Alliance for Diverse Abilities employee resource group, which works to make sure all employees feel empowered to reach their full potential through accessibility, advocacy, networking and education.

Goleta: born & raised

Chan designs circuit boards for electronic warfare jamming technology. For the past 33 years, he has worked at RI&S’ facility in Goleta, Calif., the city where he was born and raised.

“I started with the company as an intern while I was going to the University of California at Santa Barbara, and never left,” Chan said. “One reason that I’ve stayed is that the company has been very supportive. There hasn’t been resistance to provide needed accommodation, and they’re still progressing. They value employees with diverse abilities.”

Chan said his parents motivated him to reach high – to live on his own and contribute to his community.

“Education has always been a priority for my family,” Chan said. “My parents sacrificed a lot to have the funds to put their children through school, and they’re very proud that I was able to succeed in my career, live independently and own a home.”

Dreams almost dashed

Chan faced another problem in middle school: Administrators wanted to place him in special education, thinking he wasn’t cut out for a traditional classroom.

“This was before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, and there was ignorance on what people with diverse abilities can really accomplish,” Chan said. “Luckily, I had an advocate assigned by the state who fought for me, getting me into a traditional classroom. Otherwise, there’s a chance I might not be in the position I am today.”

Sometimes he turns his engineering mindset within – specifically, the desire to know why things are as they are, and how they work. A few years ago, he visited a neurologist and received an MRI to pinpoint the areas of his brain that had been damaged.

“Basically, she told me that there was a lot of damage, and I was an outlier because I’ve been able to do so much,” Chan said. “She was very happy that I’ve been so successful and independent.”

‘It’s what gives me independence’

One thing even an engineer of Chan’s skill can’t understand is why people ever said “confined to a wheelchair.” He certainly doesn’t see it that way.

“The wheelchair is what gives me my mobility; it’s what gives me independence,” he said. “It’s actually a positive and not a negative. It allows me to work.”

He finds that the RI&S Goleta campus is very accessible for his wheelchair and his service dog, a golden retriever named Matias.

“It’s not a huge campus, just four buildings, and they’re all fairly level,” he said. “There are entry ramps, the main entry opens with a push of a button, and other entry doors are designed to push open with ease.”

Chan's problem-solving mindset stays with him today. He wanted to do his part to reduce pollution, so, even though driving was much easier for him – he has a parking spot and ramps at work – he opted for the bus. Then he found that was dangerous because the sidewalk was narrow and obstructed, so he lobbied the city and, with the help of the company, got them to pave the side of the road.

“Even though I can drive, I wanted to take the bus to do something for the environment as well as save a little money too,” Chan said. “The site leadership really went to bat for me, which I appreciate, because it was a real safety issue getting from the bus stop to the site.”

Advocating for the next generation

As part of his duties as RADA site director, he attended the annual conference of Disability:IN, a nonprofit resource for business disability inclusion.

“I felt proud to tell people that I work for Raytheon Technologies at the conference,” he said. “Because people know that Raytheon Technologies gets it. When I was an attendee, our HR department made 11 to 15 offers to job seekers who identified as disabled.”

There has been great progress but there’s room for more, Chan said. He suggests that companies look differently at how they evaluate potential employees. For example, he said, some applicants with autism might have trouble speaking about their skills – but none at all showing them.

“Instead of looking at their disability, look at the abilities,” Chan said. “If we look at perceived obstacles from a different vantage point, we can turn them into stepping stones. That is why diversity is important to Raytheon Technologies – to look for solutions in all aspects.”

“Now we are able to see that people with disabilities can be great contributors,” he said. “We’re no longer ‘protected’ out of public sight. The public is starting to realize that people with disabilities can contribute, and, more importantly, they want to contribute.”