How an ex-NFLer overcame disability en route to space

Perched on the edge of a cavernous pool nested within NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, Leland Melvin mentally prepared to take the plunge. Dressed in a space suit, he lowered himself into the water and began a descent to the bottom of a deep pool that housed a submerged space shuttle. 

Underwater training simulates the weightless environment of space, and Leland knew that spacewalk proficiency was the quickest path to a coveted first-flight assignment. So he was eager to test his mettle. But at 20 feet, and diving deeper, he knew something was seriously wrong.

Along with sudden-onset nausea, a searing pain in his head nearly caused him to black out. His thrashing body was observed on camera and the ailing astronaut was carefully raised from the depths and swiftly examined by a neurosurgeon.

“The look on the doctor’s face told me something was very wrong. In fact, I saw concern on everyone’s faces. They were all mouthing words without sound, and I wondered why they didn’t just speak up. When Dr. McCluskey touched my right ear, I noticed the blood on his finger and began to feel it running down the side of my face. He quickly examined my ears and observed retraction of my tympanic membrane—the eardrum.” 

Melvin’s eardrums were badly damaged by the workplace accident. So badly, it was believed, that his hearing would likely never recover. And if there was any improvement, the diminished acuity would dash any hopes of space travel.

All this came as a massive blow to the former NFL football-player-turned-astronaut. His world gone silent, his dreams crushed, Melvin Leland fell into a dark depression. 

“I was completely deaf,” Melvin would later say. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever endured”. But to everyone’s surprise, his hearing returned to normal a mere three weeks later. And though it took two years to achieve a full recovery, he was finally able to fly on his first shuttle mission. 

Melvin attributes his recovery not to any miracle of modern medicine, but to his brain’s ability to adapt to these new circumstances. Doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with his ears after the accident because the problem was in his brain. “Somehow the connection between my brain and my ears had been severed. But over time my brain made adjustments to compensate for losses or changes,” which is how he believes he was able to regain his hearing. “I’ll never take my brain for granted again,” Melvin says.

Following Melvin’s accident, NASA rolled out a ‘Just-in-Time Disability Toolkit’ for managers. The toolkit contains helpful tips, print-and-go checklists, and other relevant resources to help NASA managers hire individuals with disabilities, develop reasonable job accommodations, and provides advice on handling psychiatric injuries. According to NASA leadership, the organization is now fully prepared to manage every sort of disability.


Disability management is a proactive and coordinated strategy to facilitate and manage employee health and productivity. Instead of treating disability as an inevitable cost of doing business and allowing claims to be victimized by chance, a disability program empowers employers and leads to better outcomes for themselves and employees.

In particular, developing a guide (i.e. NASA Toolkit) to direct managers through the critical first steps post-injury is paramount. When followed, a manager’s guidebook/injury package ensures that when employees leave the workplace for medical attention, they take the right forms, understand next steps, and expect a modified job offer (when applicable). In this way, by taking the guesswork out of the WCB process, managers are quicker to react to workplace incidents thus leading to better claim outcomes for injured workers (and their employers).

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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About Me

Ben Barfett, Principal and Consultant, has spent his life in the construction sector, specifically heavy civil, enviro, commercial, and energy. Having held senior roles in business development, technical advisory, and regional management, he earned his stripes in the field and in head office. Conscious of the interplay between commercial, legal, and execution aspects of construction, his business insights are informed by expertise in WCB policy and enhanced with disability-specific training. 

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Blue Collar Consulting

Blue Collar Consulting is a WCB and disability management firm. The company specializes in rapid and affordable disability solutions that advance current claims, contain the cost of future claims, and get injured workers back on their feet. 

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