Before her accident, Maritza Smith-Romero didn’t think much about computers.
“I always thought they were a great tool,” she said, “but I never had the time really to look at them beyond as just tools.”
But after a car wreck left Smith-Romero a quadriplegic, she began to rely on a computer with voice-recognition software to work and to communicate.
Her computer became far more than just a tool. It became a key.
“It opens doors,” she said. “It makes the world more accessible to people with different types of disabilities.”
A graduate student in computer science at Southern University, Smith-Romero, 48, has diligently worked to reinvent her life since she was paralyzed in 1998. Before, she studied zoology and worked with animals. Today, she is obsessed with coding and writing programs on a laptop she keeps with her throughout the day.
Earlier this year, she was chosen as a Google Lime scholar, a program for computer science students with a hidden or visible disability. She and only 11 others each received a $10,000 scholarship, and this week she will fly to the Google campus in Mountain View, California, for a retreat.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” she said. “They’re going to fly all the scholars up there, and I have no idea what they’re going to have us do. They said there would be programming.”
Growing up in Baker, Smith-Romero had always planned to work with animals. She studied zoology at LSU and attended LSU Veterinary School.
In the 1990s, with her student loans mounting, she found a job working for a biotechnology research company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, caring for the animals used in testing.
One morning in April 1998, while driving her pickup to work, another vehicle struck her passenger-side door.
At 5 feet, 1-inch tall, seat belts never fit her correctly, she said.
On less busy roads, like her route to work, she didn’t wear one.
The force of the wreck sent her across the truck’s cab, and the back of her head struck the truck frame above the door, breaking her neck.
She was left a quadriplegic — paralyzed with some control of her hands and wrists — and spent four months in a Massachusetts rehabilitation hospital, then was flown to her mother’s house in Baker to live.
Two of her managers at her job encouraged Smith-Romero to keep working. They trained her to use computers with voice recognition software and paid to have an office installed at her home in Baker. For 10 years she worked remotely as an administrative assistant, first for 10 hours a week, then for 20.
Work is important to her. “Not being idle, interacting with people,” she gave as her reasons.“Not being isolated. A paycheck.”
Using technology daily taught her to appreciate computers. She became well acquainted with different programs and learned the intricacies of several types of technology.
In her 10 years working remotely, the company changed hands a few times, and in 2008, the newest owners laid her off.
After her accident a decade earlier, Smith-Romero had been connected with a career counselor, but she didn’t need much help at the time. Following her layoff, she spoke with counselors in Louisiana and decided to seek more education. She wanted to study computer science.
In 2010, Smith-Romero began taking classes at Southern, working toward a master’s degree.
She enjoys the problem-solving aspects of computer science, digging in and figuring out how to make things work.
“She is very eager to get work done even though her disabilities don’t always allow her to be here,” said Ebrahim Khosravi, chairman of the computer science department who encouraged Smith-Romero to seek a graduate degree. “She wants to excel,” he said. “She wants more.”
When she finishes her education in the next few years, she wants to find a job in Louisiana and work at least part time in an office to be around other people in her field.
“That is an opportunity to learn more,” she said.
In computer science, you can never stop learning, she said.
“It doesn’t stand still, so if you’re in it, you’re going to learn something new.”