The representation of disabled people across various fields is on the increase except for one – science. The physical layout of a lab, or field site, and the design of its instruments can render science literally inaccessible to some disabled scientists.
While the representation of disabled scientists has increased, many still choose not to disclose a disability due to exclusionary practices and entrenched ableism at institutions. Nonetheless, there are many disabled scientists whose impact is of huge importance to our daily life.
Born in 1847, Thomas Edison lost much of his hearing by his early 20s. He worked in the field of telegraphy — transmitting information via communication systems — where he thrived as an innovator and inventor.
In Thomas’ New Jersey lab, he developed audio devices, invented the incandescent lightbulb, and helped give birth to the motion picture industry.
After Ralph Braun’s muscular dystrophy diagnosis, he developed groundbreaking mobility devices. Ralph’s experiences informed inventions, such as motorised scooters, wheelchair accessible vehicles, and wheelchair lifts.
He advocated for the education and employment of individuals with disabilities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Ralph, who died in 2013, is known as the “Father of the Mobility Movement.”
Born in Korea and trained as an oceanographer, Sang-Mook Lee was teaching in the United States when a car accident in 2006 paralysed him from the shoulders down.
The experience gave Lee a “bigger purpose” as a scientist and as an educator. Lee advocates for the development of assistive technology for science and engineering education while continuing his own research.
After a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – a form of motor neuron disease – at the age of 21, Stephen Hawking spent decades working as a mathematician and physicist.
Stephen used a wheelchair, voice synthesisers, and other technologies to research, write, and communicate. He contributed groundbreaking theories about the origins of the universe, black holes, radiation, and more.
Stephen also published, taught, and won numerous awards for his scientific contributions before his death in 2018.
Geerat Vermeij is an evolutionary biologist who has been blind since childhood. He uses touch in his work with molluscs as he investigates extinct species and their predators.
Geerat attributes his interests in nature and natural history to his parents and supportive teachers throughout his life. He has been published over 200 times.
Geerat states being visually impaired has helped him as a scientist because “being aware” has made him “a better observer.”
Software engineer Farida Bedwei has cerebral palsy. She developed cloud software now used by over 100 finance companies in her home country Ghana and has published a children’s book to “educate people about disability from the perspective of someone living with it.”
One of the most successful entrepreneurs on the African continent, she’s won awards for her leadership in finance.
Research entomologist Richard Mankin serves as the president of the Foundation for Science and Disability and says he was “born to be a scientist.”
Richard wears braces on his legs and uses crutches to walk while conducting field research as part of his work on how insects use smell and sound.
Career advisers discouraged Hamied Haroon from becoming a doctor, but he was determined to pursue a medical career. He has the hereditary condition Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, which causes neurological deterioration.
Using calipers and a wheelchair, Hamied continues to adapt to changes in his body. He studies dementia in the hopes of developing more effective treatments for the disease by using MRI technology.
Albert Einstein’s achievements in the fields of mathematics and physics didn’t come without challenges. Having a learning disability, it’s reputed that he did not learn to talk until age four and was often confronted by teachers for his inability to grasp concepts as fast as other students. It’s possible he was experiencing symptoms of dyslexia.
Nobel prize-winning biochemist Edwin Krebs made a sensational discovery in the 1950s about cellular activity in the human body that led to greater understanding about hormones, cell life spans, and even how the body can reject transplanted organs. He is hearing-impaired.
He was one of the last people to discover he would be getting the Nobel in 1992 because he couldn’t hear the phone ring.
By Raya Al-Jadir
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