Celebrating the life and achievements of scientists with a disability

By: Peerapat Suputtitada

Scientists with disabilities face unique challenges but prejudice or discrimination does not stop them from pursuing scientific inquiry. Throughout history, many notable pioneers with disabilities blazed trails or became household names, bringing much-needed attention to the plight of people with disabilities.

Here are some renowned disabled scientists from various different time periods and fields.

Thomas Edison, born in 1847, started experiencing significant hearing loss in his early twenties. Despite this, Edison career in telecommunications was incredibly successful. Edison’s New Jersey lab was where the incandescent lightbulb, motion pictures, and other audio-visual innovations were born. Edison was awarded a staggering 1,093 patents before his passing in 1931.

Picture of a lightbulb
Little did Edison know his invention would lead to so many “lightbulb moments” for scientists in the future (image credit: LED Supermarket via Pexels)

Geerat Vermeij, an evolutionary biologist and Professor of Marine Ecology and Paleoecology, has been blind since he was young. When researching extinct molluscs and the predators that may have driven them to extinction, he relies on his sense of touch. He has had over 200 works published under his name to date, disproving the notion that those with disabilities such as blindness are unable to conduct scientific research.

Stephen Hawking was Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, and was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis at the age of 21, yet went on to spend decades studying mathematics and physics. Hawking used a wheelchair, voice synthesizers, and other assistance to complete his work and communicate. Several domains have benefited enormously from Hawking’s contributions, including the study of cosmology, black holes and radiation. Prior to his passing in 2018, Hawking made extensive contributions to scientific literature, taught others, and received numerous awards.

Professor Stephen Hawking
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis did not prevent Professor Hawking from becoming one of the most recognisable and high-achieving scientists to date (image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

My inspiration to serve as the founder and chairperson of the Father Ray Foundation Club at Ruamrudee International School in Bangkok I attribute to my experiences accompanying my mother (a professor of rehabilitation medicine) when seeing her patients. My interest in the works of scientists with disabilities also motivated me to attain this role.

People with disabilities (PWDs) often have a strong desire to overcome their health issues. They may feel as if they don’t do enough. They might not have cleaned the house as thoroughly as they would have liked to, or perhaps a flare-up prevented them from going to a party. In order to give oneself some sense of comfort and rest, one usually has to forgo events or let a few things slip. They can spend a significant amount of their lives attempting to appear normal. They might wish to be praised for engaging in activities that their healthier peers engage in on a regular basis.

“Don’t regard my accomplishments as extraordinary simply because I have a disability”, as I see in many articles about PWD. That is unquestionably true, and typically people who have disabilities don’t desire additional recognition, but by no means should we minimise their successes.

Images of the blog author during activities at the Father Ray Foundation
My activities at the Father Ray Foundation which cares for and educates underprivileged children and students with disabilities

I highly admire everyone who has attempted and fought tirelessly to overcome their limitations, especially the great scientists with disabilities who have created advancements for the benefit of mankind. They motivate me to excel academically at a renowned university to learn about and gain medical experience. I aspire to be a good doctor who helps people with disabilities and can create medical advancements for the benefit of patients in the future.

“However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.”

“I am just a child who has never grown up. I still keep asking these “how” and “why” questions. Occasionally, I find an answer.”

Prof Stephen Hawking

Let’s honour the contributions made by scientists with disabilities throughout their lives. They are not only great scientists but also great inspirations.

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