Joy is the first word that comes to mind when talking with third-year computer science student Paul Chiou. He has an infectious personality combined with a wickedly dry sense of humor. He’s also quadriplegic and spends his day in a wheelchair.
Although Chiou’s journey has been filled with significant detours and curves, he remains enthusiastic about life and passionate about learning. Many would crumble under the weight of his challenges, but he handles his life with a positive demeanor.
It’s a weight Chiou has carried since 2000 when he, then a sophomore in high school, was hit by a car while riding his bike home. His injury left him with no movement or sensation below the middle of his neck. This not only severely confines his mobility and breathing, it challenges every task in his life.
“After the accident, I was in the hospital for eight months,” Chiou says. “Most of that time was at a rehabilitation hospital learning to adapt to my new life.”
Chiou spends most of his time dealing with his life-altering spinal cord injury, but he is committed to not letting it define or limit his abilities.
“Being a quadriplegic poses daily obstacles,” Chiou says. “The biggest challenge with being a disabled student is finding an assistant to help, and reliable transportation to school. For me to go to school, it takes a team of people around me to have a semi-normal college life. I have always dreamed about being a computer science major.
I looked up to my aunt, my role model, who has a master’s degree in computer science. I was introduced to computer science through her, and I learned that I love working with computers.”
When he was little, his aunt showed him how to enter command line instructions so he could play DOS games. From that first introduction, Chiou fell in love with computer software.
After his accident, his passion for computers grew since it became his only source of independence. Chiou has credited computer programming with expanding his horizons. He believes computers have the ability to make lives easier.
Chiou started college at Mt. SAC and spent 10 years earning enough credits to transfer to Cal Poly Pomona.
“I spend a large portion of my life occupied with medical routines as a result of my disability,” he says. “Because of this, I would often run out of time doing homework, so it took longer to finish getting my credits. Because of this, I had to go slower in school.”
Once he was admitted to Cal Poly Pomona, he started as a computer information systems (CIS) student. Although he was almost done with CIS, he made a last minute decision to switch to computer science. As a computer science student he was able to go more in-depth on topics such as data structures and algorithm analysis.
“Instead of using the tool to build something, I can actually build the tool from scratch,” he says.
It took some time for him to adapt to the new curriculum, but his computer science professors were very helpful and knowledgeable with hands-on projects.
“As a student, Chiou is eager to learn, frequently asks questions via emails and earns excellent grades on all assignments,” says Daisy Sang, interim chair and professor of computer science. “Although he has a physical limitation, he has been able to pursue any goal or learn any lesson. He is truly free in spirit and lives his life that way.”
Chiou’s long-term goal is to create more mainstream technology that offers people with disabilities the ability to excel. The system he uses to assimilate information from class lectures and work on a computer was all modified by his family for him.
“I have special adapted software that allows me to type on a computer using a mouth-controlled rollerball,” he says. “My keyboard is on the screen and I am able to type answers and create code.”
He wants this technology to be not only more widespread, but also more affordable. He believes his computer science degree will allow him to make it a reality.
“Paul is an example of how to achieve a goal while overcoming obstacles,” says Robert Kerbs, interim associate dean for the College of Science. “His work ethic and talent in a challenging major earned him a scholarship from our college. We are proud of all he has accomplished.”
Chiou isn’t resting on his laurels. He needs to keep moving onward and upward, he says.
“Busy people don’t get upset, and I don’t allow myself too much downtime,” adds Chiou. “I will not take my blessings for granted. By excelling at school, it is the only way for me to show my appreciation back to everyone who has helped and sacrificed for me.”