Disabilities don’t stop top tech and science experts | Science News for Students


[quiet background music] When you think of scientists with disabilities, the odds are this guy comes to mind. Stephen Hawking overcame his physical disabilities to become one of the most renowned physicists of our generation. But he is just one of many great scientists and engineers who faced obstacles, large and small. Consider Wanda Diaz. Wanda is a blind astronomer who can literally hear the stars. She figured out how to study astronomical data by converting it into sounds like this: [shimmering and pinging sounds] That’s a gamma-ray burst by the way. There’s Thomas Edison, one of the greatest inventors in history. He also happened to be almost entirely deaf. There is Temple Grandin, the animal scientist who helped improve the care of animals in the livestock industry. She’s also autistic. And then there is geneticist Derek Braun who’s researching the roots of the deafness gene. It’s a cause that’s close to his heart — Derek is deaf and teaches at Gallaudet University, the world’s leading university for the deaf and hard of hearing. We talked to him and his students about their research, as well as about being a scientist with a disability. The genetics area that I’m pretty excited about has been a study or the study of what causes deafness. There’s one gene in particular that’s very common. It’s found everywhere in the world. Now, there’s between 2-4 percent of people who have it, as carriers for that gene. And the reason I was so interested in studying it was because people who study human evolution know that any mutation, if it has negative side effects, obviously, it will eventually fall out of existence. But if there’s advantages, it will grow. And this one has seemed to grow. So we tried to figure out what the advantage was. And it seems that the advantage to having this gene is that it makes people resistant to certain diseases. And resistance is important for us as humans to survive. I’m hoping that the research and the findings teach us a lesson. And the lesson is that as a society we haven’t been very tolerant of different types of people, people with disabilities, or different ways that people be. You know, different ways of being diverse. We don’t tolerate everyone the same. And I really think we should change our views and care more about the diversity that we have. That we have diversity in genetics. And cultural diversity, as well. Because that diversity is what has made us stronger. If you look at who scientists are today in the U.S., most come from a similar group of people. One same group. And they only represent maybe 40 percent of the U.S. The remaining 60% are not represented in the scientific community. So we’re missing their ideas, and their intelligence and their hard work. And we want to see recruitment of everybody from all over the country to get more of their skills and expertise. Derek and his students shared how they overcame some of the challenges they faced, and they gave us some advice for students interested in pursuing science. I didn’t always get interpreters when I needed them. That’s how I got through a lot of grad school. But I think the bigger obstacle, and the more important one is people’s attitudes. A lot of people look down on the deaf and other people with disabilities. And also people feel like “I couldn’t.” “Deaf people can’t.” And when you hear “You can’t” from so many people, everyday, after a while it builds up. So my advice, I guess, for students who want to become scientists someday: that voice that you hear telling you “You can’t.” Ignore it. And just get rid of it. Don’t even pay attention to it. Find a community of friends who will support you no matter what. I would like to go to graduate school. In the future, I’d like to get my Ph.D. Uh, in graduate school, I’d like to go for epidemiology, with an emphasis on public health and scientific communication. And eventually, I want to bridge the gap between the deaf and the hearing communities. I want to merge them together and partner. And the reason for that is because the deaf community doesn’t always have language access, and there’s information we don’t have access to. So I would like to make sure that in those partnerships, we could get access to the important work that’s going on the scientific community and to the information that’s being discovered. Because they often don’t accommodate the different levels of language understanding. And the deaf community oftentimes is left without access, and so I don’t want that. I want to add more visual information, more visual interpretation, because maintaining my community is important to me. And I’m important to the community, and I think we’re all for one, and one for all. So I want to make sure that I give back to my community. A lot of people get pulled down, and they don’t always graduate from deaf schools. I went to a mainstream school myself, and so I had hearing teachers that didn’t really focus on me. they would focus on who “could talk” or had an easier way of communicating, those types of students. I was often kind of cast aside. And so I felt like I wanted to prove them wrong. And the community, the deaf community, has contributed to me a lot. They told me not to give up, and to keep on moving and to stay on track. I think if anybody wants to become a scientist, go for it. Don’t allow the world to tell you no. Or where you can go or what you can do. Do it. [quiet background music]

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