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Able Scientists Overcoming Disabilities *Feature Index*

Becoming a scientist requires stamina and endurance, among other things. As an avid Next Wave reader, you already know that. There's always an obstacle to be conquered--an awkward supervisor, unexpected lab results, and so on--before the greenhorn graduate can be shaped into a senior scientist.

But some would-be scientists have far more problems to deal with than simply the garden-variety hurdles that every scientist has to face. People who suffer from certain physical conditions--be they blind, paraplegic, or dyslexic--that make them handicapped or disabled scientists.

Although research that may, in the long term, benefit disabled people--genetics or stem cell research for example--is often in the headlines, disabled people who are themselves scientists tend to have a much lower profile. Of course Stephen Hawking is a notable exception, who also brings occasional attention to the topic, but the vast majority of disabled scientists get little recognition for their achievements.

The European Commission has declared 2003 to be the " European Year of People with Disabilities," and the Next Wave editorial staff figured that a close look at the situation of disabled scientists, not only in Europe but also in other parts of the world, was long overdue.

Taking a look across the Atlantic indicates that the issue of scientists with disabilities is firmly on the agenda in North America. The Canadian and U.S. scientific communities have already recognised the need for special support schemes for disabled scientists. Sadly, a similar awareness is lacking in Europe.

Although some might argue that making a special case of scientists with disabilities is patronising, and agree with the assessment of Germany's largest science-funding organisation--the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (which supports Next Wave Germany)--that "everyone has equal opportunities when applying for funding, so we don't need special support programmes," such an attitude fails to take account of the fact that simply carrying out the same tasks as an able-bodied scientist may required specially adapted (and therefore expensive) equipment. The fact is that many disabled students don't even reach the point at which they could benefit from the cornucopia of unbiased grant money, but more diversity in research personnel only means a broader scope of research approaches and results.

And yes, despite being forced so often to go it alone, disabled scientists are out there. Certainly in North America, but also in Europe, people with disabilities have overcome their personal challenges, as well as the challenges of a scientific career and the general lack of awareness of their needs. We've also found scientists who devote their time to research that makes life for disabled people easier, or who have started networks that will give disabled scientists a lobby. Here are their stories:

Individual Profiles


There is much satisfaction to be gained from working on devices to restart muscle function in tetraplegic patients, but for Sylvie Coupaud the greatest boost is to work with people who do not let their extensive disabilities get them down.


One of Next Wave's readers tells us how much our coverage of the topic of scientists with disabilities means to him, and makes a plea for a level playing field.


Hugh Herr, a professor of engineering at MIT, lost a leg to frostbite after getting stuck on a mountain in a snowstorm. Now he spends his time doing research into creating more responsive prosthetic limbs.


At the University of Toronto, Mahadeo Sukhai is currently working on his PhD in cancer research despite being visually impaired.


Following a spinal chord lesion, Stefania Pasa became paraplegic. But she had already embarked on a science career and refused to give up. She's found her niche in the new biology at the University of Genoa in Italy.


John Gardner, a physics professor from Oregon State University and already blind in one eye, lost his eyesight completely at age 48. He took this as a challenge and not only continued running a lab but also founded an award-winning scientific innovations company that invents products to benefit the blind.


Jörgen Beckmann started out as a biologist where he often needed a barstool as an aid during long days in the lab. Today, he works in the field of crop and seed breeding.

Networks, Support, and Funding


Jill Allen tells how Staffordshire University in the UK has a mentoring project that helps ease disabled students' transition from higher education to the workplace.


How can universities provide efficient support for disabled students? The Cambridge Disability Resource Centre is a good example, as our UK editor, Elisabeth Pain, describes.


In Canada, the Neil Squire Foundation focuses on education, career development, and building assistive technology for people with physical disabilities.


Additionally, Michael Goldberg has written an overview on campus services available to disabled scientists in Canada.


From Berlin, Karsten Exner and Wolf Strauß describe the newly founded Resability Forum, a discussion platform for disabled scientists in Germany and Austria.


In Canada, Neil Faba describes the scope of the National Educational Association of Disabled Students, an organization dedicated to aiding and improving the educational experiences of postsecondary students with disabilities.


For our sister site GrantsNet, Marcia Triunfol has compiled an overview of programmes available to U.S. scientists with disabilities.


Need more information surrounding the topic? Please check out our resources page Next Wave's editors have compiled for you!

Please check back again soon as more feature stories will be added throughout the month!

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