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 podapati@princeton.edu