A Voice for Disabled Scientists


Would Stephen Hawking's science be different if he didn't have his disability?

There's probably no real answer to the question posed above, because it depends on too many 'What-ifs'. But nevertheless, Hawking's disability is an intrinsic part of him--he wouldn't be himself without it. So does his condition affect his research, and its results, in any way?

Contrary to the situation in gender studies, where questions such as 'do women do science differently?' have been asked, there has not been any discourse about research and teaching from a disability-specific perspective in the individual scientific disciplines. The Resability Forum of Disabled Scientists (resability stands for 'research' and 'ability'), founded by disabled scientists in Germany and Austria, aims to offer a forum for such a discussion. This network sees scientific discourse as an essential part of innovation, and controversies as a necessary component in the development of all branches of science.

Disability has been a feature of human existence since the beginning of our history. Despite different ways of dealing with disability at different times, one fundamental assumption is clear: 'Disability' was regarded as being contrary to the rules and therefore disabled people have been constantly under threat of elimination.

From the beginning of science, disability has been thought of as a deviation from the norm, even a morbid disorder of the individual. The inevitable result was a sustained effort to--politically, morally, ethically, and even metaphysically--legitimise the elimination of the different. Aristotle, the originator of practical philosophy, took what would be regarded as an extremist view today--that 'no handicapped newborn is to be brought up.' This opinion has prevailed, albeit in a watered-down form, throughout history. In the second half of the 19th century, for example, British sociologist Herbert Spencer (one of the first modern sociologists) taught that 'no society can afford to protect their frail members at the expense of the strong ones.'

The fervent wish of scientists to eliminate the annoying anomaly of disability classified disabled persons and their handicaps as scientific objects, and the people actually under consideration were unable to play a significant part in the scientific discourse regarding their disabilities. In consequence, scientists without disabilities dominated the lives of disabled people, imposing their own ideas of normality. This is comparable with the situation of women in many societies, where they are believed to be incapable of logical thought, emotionally insecure, unreliable, and are accepted by society only as an appendage of their husband.

Even where disabled scientists are found, they are a minority in relation to the dominating number of nonhandicapped scientists. Because of this, they often find themselves in a situation in which they have to defend their opinions or enforce their position--often as an individual--against overwhelming resistance. Especially when compared to the United States or maybe the UK--where awareness on disability issues is much greater than it is in Germany and Austria--this, of course, seems somewhat grotesque, especially in those fields where scientific interest focuses on disabilities itself. Sadly enough, poor examples exist as Professor Mounira Daoud-Harms experienced when a German university actually refused to employ her. Daoud-Harms, whose research field is pedagogics for disabled persons, was told that because of her blindness, she would not be able to observe handicapped children for scientific studies.

If one believes that good science is objective science, a connection between the individual personal situation of the researcher and the results of his or her work seems impossible. Why should a handicapped, female mathematician get a different solution from her able-bodied male colleague to the same equation? But we also have to ask why a surgeon with a paralysis would not be predestined to work on cases of paraplegia.

The experience of members of the Resability Forum of Disabled Scientists shows that the personal situation of an individual certainly influences not just the subject matter of their work, but their approaches and conclusions. "What does it signify," Waltraud Perne, a social scientist and managing director of the Resability Forum, asks, "when Jürgen Habermas puts communication at the centre of his considerations?" (Germany's famous contemporary sociologist's characteristic articulation is due to a jaw anomaly. His main research field includes communication conditions in society.)

Whereas the 'medical model' of disability interprets it as an irregular disorder of an individual, according to the so-called 'social model' the difficulties of disabled people are rooted in the social circumstances under which they live and work: a woman born without arms and hands types a text with her toes, but typewriter and keyboard have been constructed for arms and hands. Our daily environment is dominated by norms which are based on a "common" definition of "normal." Thus, shoe companies manufacture their shoes according to the standardised foot, car seats are built for the average-height person, and Internet sites (including this one) are built according to the visual capabilities of a person with normal vision. Simultaneously, this standardisation leads to the build-up of barriers for all those who don't fall into these standard categories.

Where disabled scientists are working on themes that clearly have nothing to do with disability, we nonetheless find it remarkable that they themselves think that their disability is irrelevant for their research. This implies a lack of consciousness that their individual situation impacts on everything they do, including their research work.

This, then, is the basis of the discourse which the Resability Forum aims to foster. But its activities reach beyond this. The main goal of the Resability Forum is to ensure that the expert knowledge of disabled scientists from different disciplines is heard outside academia in society's discussions on all topics, not just those related to disability issues. The Resability Forum feels confident that the active participation of disabled scientists in the formation of society and finding solutions to its different problems provides our collective society with an undiscovered, innovative potential to tap into.

Besides providing a platform for discourses, the Resability Forum will soon set up an administrative and organizational service for the realization of personal study and research projects. Simultaneously the forum will act as a representative of the interests of disabled scientists and provide a system of assistance with regard to their scientific work and their professional careers. Up to now, disabled scientists have lacked a network through which to represent themselves as an organized group and to support the individual in the context of discussions inside as well as outside of scientific institutions.

The main tasks the Resability Forum perceives for itself are:

- to provide assistance in mastering organizational and subject-specific problems with colleagues without disabilities in scientific institutions,

- to enable the interchange of information with respect to scientific questions,

- to provide assistance in the job search, or keeping a job in academia,

- to help disabled students to organize themselves for the purpose of representing their interests inside and outside scientific institutions, and to assist them in providing opportunities for alternative information exchange on disability-specific themes in the context of their studies or their scientific work.

Conducting science from the specific view point of disability is an additional step on the path of acquiring 'a total comprehension of the phenomena around us and our existence.' That is the explicit aim of Stephen Hawking. Within the Resability Forum, scientists are sure that Hawking would have come to other conclusions without his disability.

But nobody knows yet what conclusions these would be!

Contact the Resability Forum at post@resability-forum.de

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