Review: exhibit Lab at the science history institute

How have ideas about disability shaped the things we know and the ways in which we know them? How have they impacted participation in science?

These are the questions that guide visitors as they peruse the books, oral histories, and artifacts at the Science History Institute’s current ExhibitLab, “Science & Disability.”

At the reception desk, you’ll find Braille pamphlets detailing the contents of the four glass display cases behind the exhibit’s south-facing pillars. The first case, entitled “Who can do Science?”, contains a Teletype machine for deaf users, a 3D printed anatomy card, and brochures featuring and recruiting scientists with disabilities for organizations like the American Chemical Society and the Human Engineering Research Laboratories. The print materials point towards the influence of the civil rights movement, namely how it helped inspire the collaborative activism of the disability rights movement. Just as the civil rights movement critiqued hierarchy based on racial differences, the disability rights movement critiqued hierarchy based on the physical, sensory, and mental differences of disability. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the disability rights movement began to coalesce into one movement from previously disparate elements. These activists sought to extend the full exercise of citizenship to all people with disabilities and the movement focused on legal efforts to prohibit discrimination in areas such as employment and education. The pamphlets in this display case detail the organizing activities in the STEM fields; scientists with disabilities formed professional groups, built labs, and set up mentoring and support networks.

The next case, “Missing Elements”, brings visitors’ attention to the contributions of scientists with disabilities. A periodic table, printed in 2005 by the American Chemical Society, is conspicuously missing 22 elements. Among the omitted elements are oxygen, helium, calcium, and sodium. Below it is a document that names the discoverers of these elements and their impairments. Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) is credited with the discovery of oxygen. Priestley was also a Unitarian minister despite a stammer that made it painful, sometimes impossible, to speak. Pierre Janssen (1824-1907) travelled the world observing solar eclipses—discovering helium in the process—despite a childhood accident that left him unable to walk. To the left of these objects is a portrait of chemist John Dalton. In 1794, Dalton noted his inability to distinguish red and green and created his own color test using silk threads. Modern color blindness tests refined his method to create easily administrable tests for use in the railroad and military industries. The last object featured in the case is a display of numbers and symbols composed of colored dots—the Ishihara test (an example of which is pictured below on exhibit at the Science History Institute), developed in the early 20th century.

This is a color photograph of an exhibition vitrine with artifacts inside at the Science History Institute. In the top left corner is a portrait of chemist John Dalton. Below that are two plates containing the Ishihara color blindness test. These plates have a circular field in which dots of various sizes and hues are evenly distributed. To the right are periodic table charts showing which elements were discovered by disabled scientists.
An exhibit at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia, PA, showcasing the Ishihara color blindness test. These test plates feature a circular field in which dots of various sizes and hues are evenly distributed. Photo, courtesy Pallavi Podapati.

The ephemera and artifacts drive home the point that disabled people have always been a part of knowledge production. Many have had fruitful, even revolutionary, careers in chemistry, chemical engineering, and materials science. But what does it mean to be a disabled scientist? How do disabled researchers, students, technicians, and engineers experience, navigate, and adapt the material and cultural environments of technoscience? At the next display case, you can put on headphones and take a seat to watch interviews with Jennifer Piatek, an astrogeologist, and Judith Summers-Gates, a chemist.

What quickly becomes clear upon watching the interviews is the extent to which assumptions about the scientists’ physical ability and gender have played on their lives. Summers-Gates, a Philly native, has had very low vision since birth. In her interview, she describes her childhood and a first-grade class assignment. Her teacher had students write an essay on what they wanted to be when they grew up. Summers-Gates wrote that she wanted to be, “a microscope that could grow up to be a telescope, so that she could see everything from little to big and everything in between.” She recounts the excitement of growing up during the space race and her later dreams of a career in space exploration. Space was everything in the 60s, and while there was a space program at another high school in the city, she would have been the only female student. She was already often the only female student in her math and science classes (something she notes with annoyance). This, combined with the difficult travel it would have entailed to attend the other high school, dissuaded her from enrolling in the program.

Another important theme that emerges in the interviews is the role that federal policy has played in shaping the experiences of disabled people. World War II and the post-war era saw the expansion of federal funding and support for large-scale scientific research as well as the expansion of federal agencies. For those who came of age in these decades, employment as a government scientist offered opportunities for disabled people. Summers-Gates first worked for the Department of Defense in materials testing. She is now an Analytical Chemist for the Food and Drug Administration where she combines many assistive technologies for her work. For reading, she uses voice-recognition, voice-output, and screen-magnification software, as well as a closed-circuit TV (CCTV), which she can connect to a microscope for a larger display. In her chemistry laboratory, she uses another lightweight CCTV to examine, close up, reactions taking place under the hood. She uses a bioptic telescope (a miniature telescope mounted on the top of her eyeglasses) and carries an electronic magnifier to read items she can’t take with her, such as signs on bulletin boards.

I cannot recall the last time I viewed an exhibit in which disabled people were presented as active knowledge producers and not simply portrayed as benefactors of technological developments, often in the form of medical devices and treatments. These individuals are often assumed to be non-knowers, people who should not be given access to scientific training, tools, and spaces. A chemist with low vision or blindness, like other chemists, gathers and analyzes data and looks for trends. They may just engage a different process—one that a narrow view of the scientific process hasn’t allowed for. What if the scientific community became more open to different ways of knowing? The fact that disabled people have themselves contributed to our understanding of science and are responsible for inventions that have enriched the lives of people, with or without disabilities, might be new information for the exhibit’s visitors. Why is this the case? Jessica Martucci, a research fellow at SHI and a curator of the exhibit reflected on this question in May during an interview with WHYY: “The fact that we don’t necessarily know [this] is not a reflection of reality…it’s a reflection of historical choices about who gets included in these stories.” As visitors leave the exhibit, they will hopefully consider new and more expansive ways of thinking about what is really required to work in STEM, what those paths and careers can and do look like, and how we might begin to reimagine our efforts to build a more inclusive and diverse community of scientists as we head further into the 21st century.

Pallavi Podapati is a History of Science PhD candidate at Princeton University. She works at the intersection of the history of medicine, technology, disability, and the body. Her dissertation is on the history of adaptive technologies and sporting practices in the Paralympic Games. She can be reached at


Writing the first editorial for AllOfUs has not only been a joy, but it has also been an honor. What has always delighted me about disability history is how much our field owes its very existence to the initiative, labor, and commitment of generations of disabled people and disability rights movements across the world. AllOfUs came into existence because the Disability History Association (DHA) understands this. We intend for the blog to be meaningful and useful for disabled people as we connect the present to the past, and serve as a space where academics from across disciplinary boundaries can share their work in an accessible format, bypassing institutional, disciplinary, spatial, and linguistic firewalls. We also want AllOfUs to disseminate innovative scholarship, teaching, and activism in disability history as well as to publish work that allows us to analyse the present through the lens of disability history. Indeed, this first editorial was inspired, or rather provoked, by the rise in the number of reports detailing the variegated difficulties that disabled people confront when they travel. These complications with transit have ranged from airlines breaking wheelchairs to inaccessible venues and suspicions of service animals. These issues are part of a longer history of how disability has been managed within public space. In this Editorial, I examine the presence of guide dogs in public spaces, prompting us to think about broader issues related to disability and transportation.1

This is an etching of a blind man standing, holding a vessel with a slot into the top of which coins can be inserted. There is a black dog at the man’s foot. The man is holding a cane.
Jacques Callot, “A blind man with his dog,” Etching, ca. 1622, Wellcome Collection, CC BY, Wellcome Library no. 2029283i,

One year before the turmoil of World War II, the blind advocate for guide dogs Hazel Hurst arrived in the United Kingdom aboard the liner American Merchant. She did not stay long, however, departing the country after spending “just ten minutes on English soil,” when the British government banned her guide dog Babe from disembarking with her handler without “first undergoing the usual six months quarantine,” despite the fact it had been vaccinated against rabies.2 “It would be like leaving my eyes behind me,” she told newspapers; ‘”It is the first time in my life I have felt blind. I don’t feel safe being guided by a human being.”3 Hazel’s experience of traveling with Babe will be familiar to many disabled people with service animals today. As I write this, my faithful Charlie (pictured below) lies next to me, tired from a long day at the university. Over the past two years, Charlie has alerted me to auras, and seizures, preventing injury, concussion or worse. I cannot imagine surviving the past few years without his presence. Yet, I have also confronted deep seated misconceptions about what service animals do for disabled handlers, confusions over service and support animals and questions about the roles of service animals in public spaces, especially while travelling. 

This color photograph shows a serious-looking black and white speckle-coated dog, half Basset hound and half-Australian sheep dog, with grave dark brown eyes. He is seated on a rust-coloured overstuffed chair, and has a green Christmas themed bandana around his neck, with yellow and green tags and a black harness.
Charlie, courtesy the author.

Archives reveal how dogs and other animals worked as guides and draught animals for disabled people through the centuries. Dogs as (untrained) “leaders’” of the blind were not unusual in public spaces through the centuries. In the United States, newspapers give us some insight into how these (untrained) dogs served their blind companions: for instance, the collie Prince took JW Daniels around as he made his living singing on the streets of Joplin, Oklahoma.4 Likewise, Raymond Randolph, a veteran who had lost his sight at the Battle of Santiago Cuba, worked selling pin-cushions and tuning pianos in Baltimore while led about by his Spanish fox terrier Lucy.5 The story of Abraham Lefshitz is particularly poignant; the Bridgeport resident was “old and blind” and his St Bernard was his primary conduit to the wider world.6 In 1909, after repeated (and possibly unwarranted) complaints about the dog to the police, Lefshitz was told the dog would be shot, after which he “had a little conversation” with the dog and committed suicide by leaving the gas on in his room, unable to think of living on without his guide and friend. Lefshitz’s story underscores how blind people and their dogs were uniquely vulnerable to the vagaries of local laws and its administration in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.7 It is also clear that these “leader” dogs were generally considered equivalent to companion animals, despite the services they performed for their blind handlers and that these dogs were also often signifiers of mendicancy, poverty, and dependency. 

First World War German poster depicting a blind soldier with his guide dog wearing a Red Cross symbol on its collar. The German text translates as: "Towards the Light! Fellow citizens! Help us in caring for our war blind." The soldier's epaulette bears '163' in red ink. The poster asks fellow citizens to help those in solitude through being blinded by the war.
Image caption: M. Werner and Kunstanstalt Weylandt, “‘Dem Licht’entgegen!’ (Towards the light!)” Chromolithograph poster, Berlin, Germany, 1914-1918, Australian War Memorial collections, ARTV07416

In the years following World War I, dogs were systematically and deliberately trained to accompany blind veterans and civilians in Europe, the UK and the US.8 Indeed, by the end of the Second World War, guide dogs in the US were constructed as a part of the “obligation which the Nation owes to disabled veterans” as part of their rehabilitation.9 As a result, US Congress approved a million dollar bill to authorize the Veterans Administration to provide seeing-eye dogs for blind war veterans. In the following decades, the use of the guide dog has additionally spread across the world, although it was largely restricted to the spaces of the Global North for much of the twentieth century. Guide dogs did not reach Australia and New Zealand until after World War II and South Africa until the 1950s.10

As the guide dog movement spread across the world, there were inevitable problems when they first ventured into public spaces. A barrage of newspaper reports in the 1930s and 1940s underscored the ways in which guide dogs, and consequently their blind handlers, challenged the long standing associations between dogs and blind beggars. But the guide dog also had to confront pre-existing constructions of dogs in public spaces as vectors of rabies, threats to urban sanitation and public health as well as a possible agents of injury, perceptions which had often ossified into law.11 Further, unlike companion animals that more often lived in private residences or the working dog on the farm, the guide dog represented a category of human-animal interaction different from companion dogs. What is clear is that as blind handlers and their guide dogs navigated their worlds, they were also all too often likely to be excluded or discouraged from public spaces, private establishments or residences, and from traveling. For instance, guide dogs in the US in the 1930s were banned from federal buildings, including post offices, and public transit was a particular concern as dogs were banned by most transportation companies.12 Eventually, railroad companies, motor-bus companies and other modes of conveyance began to allow guide dogs on board, but it was often on a voluntary basis.13 The same was true for air travel. Buddy, the first guide dog in the United States, was most likely the first service animal to travel by air with her blind handler Morris Frank. Buddy and Frank even travelled internationally, actively advocating for guide dogs to be allowed in aircraft passenger cabins, rather than traveling as cargo.14 However, access to airplanes depended on individual circumstance and on the airline’s willingness and could not be guaranteed.15

The image shows a black and white photograph of a man dressed in a coat and hat, with dark glasses, holding onto the leash of a medium sized dog. Both are standing on the ramp to an airplane, with “Canadian Colonial Airways” emblazoned over the open door of the plane.
Conrad Poirier, “A blind man with his guide dog in Montreal, 1941,” Photograph, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, accessed via the Poirier Project,

In 1937, however, blind advocates petitioned the US government to make legal exceptions for guide dogs and Congress passed the HR bill 222.16 The bill acknowledged the contributions made by seeing-eye dogs to “sightless persons” and also sought to resolve the spatial constraints the dogs and their handlers confronted in public spaces: “any sightless person who is a passenger for hire on any interstate common carrier, motor vehicle, railroad train, motorbus, streetcar, boat, or other public conveyance or mode of transportation…shall be entitled to have with him…his ‘seeing eye’…and the transportation for said ‘seeing-eye dog shall be included in the regular standard charge or fare paid by said owner-passenger.”17 Martin F Smith, the representative from Washington argued that companies that managed public transit had to understand and accept that the seeing-eye dog was a “part of the passenger or blind person…that the dog was the eye of the passenger”—acknowledging that the guide dog was a living prosthesis for their blind handlers. 

Concurrently, many state and city administrations also passed similar legislations, reifying the guide dog as the living prosthesis for the blind. New York state was among the first states to sign into law exceptions that acknowledged that the blind man and his guide dog were “one individual.”18. But, in the following decades, these laws often fell short of ensuring inclusion in public spaces and in transit. In 1954, during the 25th anniversary of the Seeing Eye in Morristown, NJ, the New York Times reported that “in many states laws against excluding them from public places has changed.”19 Even so, these changes in laws did not necessarily mean that disabled people experienced public spaces and travel differently: as Russell Post, an instructor-trainer with the Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California, told the Los Angeles Times in 1971, “The laws are virtually unenforceable because district attorneys are too busy to push them.”20

: The black and white photograph shows a street scene, with a man in a dark jacket and light colored pants in the center of the frame. He looks away from the camera, and in his left hand he holds a cane, and in the other, he holds on to the leash of a guide dog. To his left, another man in a dark suit also walks along the street and he looks directly at the camera.
“FRANK FAYER A BLINDED DIGGER FROM THE ORIGINAL 3RD BATTALION, BEING LED BY HIS GUIDE DOG IN THE ANZAC DAY MARCH THROUGH THE CITY,” April 25, 1946, Photograph, Australian War Memorial Photograph Collection, 127101, accessed via Trove: National Library of Australia,

Dogs soon came to be trained as service animals for an increasing range of disabilities, but guide dogs for the blind were the only service animals permitted onto buses, trains, and airplanes for a very long time. It was only in the 1980s that service animals for the physically disabled and signal alert dogs for the hearing impaired/Deaf began to be (slowly) granted the same degree of access into public spaces.21 In 1988, James Maaske, an “epileptic” was denied entry to a bus with his service dog Billie, who reminded me very much of Charlie. “When a seizure strikes, his dog, Billie watches him very carefully and keeps him away from trouble…if Maaske passes out, Billie keeps people away from him by barking and pushing with his paws and tries to revive him by licking his face.”22 But equally striking about his account was how the guide dog appears to have become anchored to blindness in the public imaginary, and how suspicious people continue to be of service animals trained to help with other disabilities. Such suspicions are profoundly ableist. Disabled people today navigate a world that has never been designed for them and continues to sideline their needs. Service animals not only transform their access to these public spaces, they facilitate all aspects of everyday life. They deserve our support and respect, not suspicion or ridicule. Especially in public spaces. 

Aparna Nair is currently Assistant Professor at the History of Science department at the University of Oklahoma. Her work examines disability, race and biomedicine in British India as well as epilepsy, personhood, and passing in modern India. She can be reached at