Thea used her experience of losing her eyesight to set up and lead a company-wide disability network.
For Thea van Wezel, chemistry is a family affair. Her father joined Dow Chemical in the early 1960s, when Thea was a young girl, and it was through her conversations with him that her interest in chemistry was sparked. Her chemistry lessons were equally inspiring: “As a child I was fascinated by chemistry classes: the magic of gold and mercury, and milk powder dust explosions.”
After leaving school, Thea took a vocational qualification then followed her father into Dow in 1970. Starting as an invoicing administrator, she has since worked in many different departments in her 44 years with the company. Now she works as a senior systems technologist leader in the performance plastics division, where she analyses all aspects of the supply chain and looks at ways to both improve the quality of the service and make cost savings. She also acts as a mentor to many of her colleagues.
“Working for a large scale chemical company ensures a great career path with many growth and learning opportunities. Chemistry is a never-ending journey, delivering new ideas, applications, and innovations!”
Thea began to lose her vision in the 1990s due to a progressive eye condition called uveitis. It is an auto-immune disease which causes the middle layer of the eye to become inflamed; with each flare of the disease, the eye becomes more and more damaged. Despite several operations, Thea was left with just 5% of her original vision by the time the condition subsided.
Despite this sudden change to her circumstances, Thea was able to continue working at Dow thanks to some adjustments. She now works full-time from home, and uses a 30” desktop monitor with special software to magnify to screen.
The loss of much of her vision has given Thea a special insight into disability in the chemical sciences, which she now shares with others as a mentor. In 2007, she was asked by Dow to form a disability network in Europe, which allows people with disabilities across the company to discuss their needs and to support each other in their work. This network, of which she is a former leader, now has over a hundred members across all of Dow’s European operations.
Advice for disabled chemists
“The best advice I can give is to be willing to adjust. I was not any less capable of succeeding and growing in my career – I just needed to be willing to do things in a different way. The same is true for anyone.”
“The limitations of a disability are not created by you, but by the environment instead; if the environment adjusts there is no disability! It is my strong belief that people with disabilities have a very valuable advantage as they are used to going the extra mile. If you are asked to take on something new, do it! Be willing to do things differently, to change roles, to change locations. This will help you pursue a great and fulfilling career.
“To help improve further, we must all push a diversity and inclusion mind set at governmental agencies so they can create awareness in the larger public. Bring diversity and inclusion to schools and universities so as not to lose any potential future talent. Diversity stands for creativity and innovation!”
Words by Stephen McCarthy
Images courtesy of Thea van Wezel
Published June 2014