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By Lorna Hutchman on

Science, power and disability

In the latest blog in our Open for All series, we look at the role disability has played in advancing scientific techniques.

“I am very aware of the preciousness of time. Seize the moment. Act now.”

These inspiring words come from Professor Stephen Hawking, one of history’s most eminent physicists.

Hawking’s hunger for scientific discovery not only shaped his own success, but that of countless others too. Developing motor neurone disease in his early 20s, his role in shifting perceptions around disability is more important today than ever before.

According to the World Health Organisation, 20% of the global population identify as having a disability.

Although this proportion is not yet reflected within the scientific community, the contributions of individuals working in the field with a disability are immense.

Throughout the sector are paragons of change, helping to bridge the inclusivity gap.

Wanda Díaz-Merced

Wanda Díaz-Merced
Wanda Díaz-Merced. Credit, Aubrey Gemignani, Alamy.

Puerto Rican all-star Wanda Díaz-Merced changed the course of data interpretation forever.

The astrophysicists’ pioneering method of converting satellite data collected from telescopes into sound opened the doors for a new way to understand data.

Díaz-Merced lost her sight in her 20s, making the conventional visual analysis of data sets impossible.

Resolute, she adapted and improved a technique called sonification whilst interning at NASA. By using hearing instead of sight, Díaz-Merced was able to interpret satellite information from stars as sound instead of as plots on graphs.

Today, through her work, various aspects of astral data including the brightness or frequency of electromagnetic radiation of stars can be portrayed as audible elements, described by volume, pitch and rhythm.

Using audio as a method to understand data offers astronomers a further gateway to avoid methodological biases and adds an additional layer of interpretation and understanding.

Díaz-Merced opened up the floor for more accessible practice. She has been named one of the BBC’s top 100 women, joining illustrious names such as Marie Curie and astronaut Soyeon Yi.

Van Phillips

Van Phillips brainstorms with students to create a list of materials for prosthetic limbs.
Van Phillips brainstorms with students to create a list of materials for prosthetic limbs. Credit, Richard Strauss, Smithsonian.

Biomedical design engineer Van Phillips changed the landscape of accessible sport forever. In his 20s, Phillips lost part of his leg in a water-skiing accident. Determined to develop a prosthetic which enabled him to continue to lead an active lifestyle, he designed The Flex-Foot Cheetah.

Prioritising functionality over cosmetics, Philips’ J-shaped curvature and 100% carbon-graphite design converts kinetic energy from the user’s steps to potential energy. As a result, running quickly and naturally is made possible, and his invention has become an industry game-changer.

The award-winning design has also revolutionised competitive sport. At present, around 90% of Paralympics participants use a Flex-Foot product, or a variant of it.

Whilst Phillips broke the status quo of producing prosthetics which resemble the human anatomy, today he is devoted to developing prosthetics tailored to those who have lost limbs as a consequence of war or landmines.

Mary Temple Grandin

Mary Temple Grandin’s talk at TED 2010.
Mary Temple Grandin’s talk at TED 2010. Credit, Rain Man’s Rainbow.

Mary Temple Grandin is recognised today as having done more to improve the welfare of livestock than any other living human. Spending time on her aunt’s ranch in Arizona as a youngster, Grandin developed a remarkable empathy towards animals.

She has cited her autism, a developmental condition which affects how people communicate and interact with the world, as a tool within her arsenal to understand the behaviour of animals.

As a professor of Animal Science, she has published over 60 academic papers and produced notable blueprints for humane livestock systems. For example, more than half of all cattle in the US move through handling facilities which she has designed.

A key element of her systems is the use of curved lanes for cattle to move through as opposed to straight lanes. This innovation correlates with the natural circling behaviour of cattle. Replicating this within the fabric of the design helps cattle move through handling facilities more comfortably, reducing stress within the animals.

Grandin has been listed as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in The 2010 Time 100. She is not only a leader in her field in the humane treatment of livestock but also an international spokesperson on autism.


The contributions by these individuals and many others have not only narrowed the gap for more accessible practices, but in many cases, have questioned and re-worked the rudimentary principles of science.

Science needs all types of bodies and minds to continue to flourish and innovate.

By recognising disability as a different ability, nurturing inclusivity, and ensuring the correct tools and opportunities are open to everyone, we have the chance to seize the power, and in the words of Hawking, act now.

Further reading:

Find out more about the development of prosthetics for the rehabilitation of war veterans in our Medicine in the Aftermath of War, Objects and Stories.

Find out more about a low-cost prosthetic that revolutionised medial care in India in our Jaipur Foot blog.

Header Image: Sonification, Crab Nebula. Credit, NASA