One month after his accident, Billy Price hit rock bottom. Sitting in bed at a Seattle hospital, the 19-year-old, first-year college student faced a future in which he would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Twenty years ago this past Oct. 9, Price had accidentally fallen from a third-story window, breaking his neck and back on the sidewalk below. He was essentially paralyzed from the neckline down. He could only move his arms slightly, but he had no hand function.
But his fighting spirit and the welcoming arms of the FAA has allowed Price not only to establish a promising career, but to flourish at the agency, where he has moved up the ladder to his current position of Program Implementation manager in the Planning and Requirements Group in the ATO’s Office of Mission Support.
In addition, Price has used his engineering background and work experience at the FAA to start a shoe company that both empowers people with disabilities and caters to a much wider audience.
Price recalled the day after the accident. “I woke up in the hospital. That’s when I was told I wouldn’t be able to walk.” Just centering his mind around the situation took time. “The weight of the situation was challenging to process,” he said. “I just couldn’t comprehend what a paralyzed life would look like.”
It took weeks for the new reality to sink in.
“That’s when you start to figure out what this is going to mean short-term and long-term,” he explained. “I kind of got hit with a ton of bricks. While I was trying to relearn how to dress myself and do day-to-day activities, all I could think about was what I used to be able to do. It was hard not to focus on all the function I had lost.”
About a month after the accident, Price “crashed mentally.”
“I faced a crossroads at a very early time in my rehab,” Price recalls. “I was in a dark place, thinking it wasn’t worth living if I couldn’t walk. And that mental state scared me. I was at rock bottom and basically had to make a choice. One choice was to turn my back to the world and stay in darkness. And the other choice was to seek the light, pick up the pieces and move forward. I chose the latter.”
With a revitalized mindset, Price did move forward. He endured 5 ½ months of rehabilitation. He eventually returned to school to earn a degree in mechanical engineering. Along the way he interned with the Boeing Co., where he heard good things about working for the FAA. It was 2003 and Price now faced the hurdle of most college graduates: where to find a job.
A disability job fair was being held in the Seattle area, and the FAA had a booth there. “I just went in there and said to myself, ‘You know what, I’m going to get a job with them.’” The FAA staffers were enthusiastic and Price went away impressed. A few months later, he got a call from Judy Clarridge in ANM-420, the precursor to the Administrative Services Group in the Western Service Area, to come in for an interview.
“She was very open and very engaging. She was just excited about the opportunity,” he recalled of Clarridge. “It felt like she took me under her wing. She got me to the right people. It wasn’t so much an interview as an open-arms thing, like, ‘What can you do for us?’”
Shortly thereafter, Price joined the FAA as a mechanical engineer in the old Airways Facilities Division in Seattle. For the next 10 years, he worked on increasingly bigger projects: a multi-million dollar chiller replacement project at the Denver TRACON, a cable replacement project at Boeing Field near Seattle, and a 5-year effort to install hydrogen fuel cells as an alternate form of back-up power at small radio facilities.
“My responsibility level went up and up.” Finally, in 2013, Price was ready for a change, to take on more responsibility. As a Program Implementation manager, he now oversees funding for projects at the Anchorage, Los Angeles, and Oakland Air Route Traffic Control Centers.
Price required no special accommodations for computers, telephones, or modified workspaces when he joined the FAA. He said he appreciates the universal layouts of the FAA office buildings in which he works at, which have clearly been designed for all people, including those with mobility issues. “There are push buttons at the facilities and doorways that are the right size. These are items you don’t normally pay attention to as an able-body, but being in a wheelchair, you do,” he said.
The area in which he needed the most accommodation was travel, which was increasing along with his responsibilities. The trips often came up on short notice and the destinations were often remote.
“The biggest thing the FAA has helped me out with is when it comes to travel. I need to bring somebody with me to help me get in and out of bed, and to get from one place to the other.”
Price credits the FAA and the Department of Transportation’s Disability Resource Center in helping him overcome the travel barrier. “The DRC has always been there for me. There is no way I could have accomplished all that I have within the FAA without their dedication and assistance.”
The Disability Resource Center provides funding to help employees with disabilities adapt to their work environment and responsibilities. The center pays for an assistant to accompany Price when he travels. This has allowed Price to continue to move out—and up—during his career.
At the heart of being an engineer is figuring out solutions to problems. And Price has had his fair share. He’s been pretty adept at it and it extends well beyond projects with the FAA. “Since being in a chair, I have had to find many workarounds to simple tasks that I used to take for granted—such as cooking, driving, or simply holding a fork or pen,” says Price. “I found answers for almost everything, but the one personal obstacle I had trouble overcoming was putting on shoes.”
Velcro shoes have been the answer for many people with movement disabilities, but it still does not negate the need to wedge your foot into a shoe. Price has no movement in his fingers or feet, so even that solution didn’t help. He put his troubleshooting mind to work and came up with a new solution that has turned into a business.
He developed a line of shoes under the “Billy Footwear” name that feature zippers, which run the length of each shoe and around the toe. The users can put their finger through a loop at the end of each zipper and even with limited hand function, can zip their shoes closed.
“Being the engineer and problem-solver, I simply stared at my feet, isolated the issue and cooked up a possible solution—that’s how the whole design concept came about,” he explained.
He founded his company in 2013, and was featured this past April on the “Quit Your Day Job” reality show on the Oxygen network. Investors expressed interest in funding the company, but no deal could be reached, so Price began a KickStarter campaign and raised enough money to start manufacturing the shoes.
“Our shoes are fashionable and utilize universal design so they appeal to all people,” he said, whether it’s children who haven’t learned to tie their shoes, folks that dislike laces, or people with arthritis or paralysis that lack the dexterity. “We have created a product that works for everyone.”
Success—both personally and professionally—has been knocking at Price’s door of late. “The success of the shoe company is a direct reflection of the skills I have learned at the FAA,” Price explained. “In school I learned how to break down a problem, but at the FAA I’ve learned how to generate and apply a solution—to come up with a scope, estimate a cost, maintain a schedule, and analyze risk. These are the pillars of project and program management.
“In terms of the successes I’ve had in life, there is no way I would have made it to where I am today without the tremendous support, love and encouragement from countless individuals both inside and outside of the workplace,” continued Price. “Being in a wheelchair can be a real challenge. But that said, I really believe this type of injury is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical—meaning if you keep your mind together, you’ll do just fine. A positive mental attitude is very important. And that applies to everyone. It’s not just a disability thing.”
(In commemoration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, Focus FAA featured employees who have overcome adversity to excel both at the Federal Aviation Administration and outside of the agency. The above article was published October 31, 2016 featuring BILLY Footwear co-founder, Billy Price.
Pictures from top to bottom:
1. Billy Price with Lake Union and the Seattle skyline in the background.
2. Price on the job during the HVAC replacement at the Salt Lake City ASR-9 radar facility.
3. Price at the Denver TRACON during installation of a centrifugal separator.
4. Price and Donaldson on the set of the local Seattle television program, New Day Northwest, being interviewed about their new line of shoes.
5. BILLY Footwear's Laceless Oxford shoe)