General Address presented at the Working Conference on Science for Students with Disabilities, St. Louis, Missouri, March 26-27, 1996.
You can imagine the curiosity I generate in deaf children, for example, when I tell them that there are six craters on the moon named in honor of deaf scientists and inventors. Did you know that a founding father of modern biology was deaf? That the chemical element Tantalum was discovered by a deaf scientist? That the "Father of Rocketry" was a deaf Russian? That the source of typhus fever was discovered by a deaf physician from France? These are only a few stories I have found through reading hundreds of history of science books and following up with additional research on their lives. In a relatively short time I found nearly 700 deaf men and women in scientific fields, including several Nobel laureates. The very first elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, the highest honor a scientist can earn in our country, was a profoundly deaf man. Two-thirds of the deaf women and men I have identified were either born deaf or became deaf in their first six years of life. Regardless of the age of onset, all of these people faced attitude and communication barriers...and overcame them.
I have met some teachers whose first reaction to this interest of mine was "I don't have time to talk about deaf scientists. My deaf students need critical thinking skills and they need to learn how to read and write."
I cannot agree more with those needs, but as an educational researcher who taught physics for 15 years and chaired a teacher training program for six years, I look back at my own personal experiences as a deaf student as well as these professional experiences and I feel strongly that we educators must think about the whole notion of motivation and self esteem. To summarize this rather briefly, it is important that we find ways to motivate the student to the learning activity, where your excellent materials and strategies can have their effect. I would like to use an example that many of us can relate to. I just completed a research study with 176 teachers with normal hearing who are learning sign language as a second language. What motivates these adults to learn sign language? What demotivates them? The issues are very complex. The teachers told me that, among other factors, their sign teachers did not provide positive reinforcement and there was little effort to relate the sign classes to their own professional lives. The attitudes of their teachers and attitudes of others sometimes led to lost motivation, as did their own fears and embarrasments. Some of my colleagues did not sign up for classes or associate much with deaf people because of these and other motivational factors. They did not improve their skills much as long as they avoided the primary and incidental learning opportunities.
Does this sound familiar? Our students with disabilities attend classes and within their hearts and minds they search for meaning. They search for ways to relate what they are learning in science to their own lives. Perhaps they have seen Stephen Hawking on television or read one of Hawking's books. But how many of our science students with disabilities, or how many of their teachers, know that James Joule, the famous English physicist, had a spinal injury as a young boy? Later, this disability played a role in Joule's rejection for a professorial appointment. What we call the "attitude barrier" today is as old as science. Joule is best known for his work on the mechanical equivalent of heat. Charles Steinmetz, the electrical engineer, was almost denied immigration into the United States because of his hunchback (scoliosis) and the fear that he would not be able to take care of himself. Steinmetz is best known for his work on alternating current circuitry and had many electrical patents.
In the same vein, Tartaglia, the famous Italian mathematician of the 16th century, was the first to work out a general solution for equations of the third degree. "Tartaglia" was, in fact, a nickname meaning "stutterer," a disability he had since he was a child. His real name was Fontana.
The famous Johannes Kepler was unable to use his hands since an attack of small pox at the age of three. His eyesight was seriously impaired through excessive use as he studied the motion of the planets. Galileo, too, experienced blindness, the result of both infection and from studying the sun.
Ladies and gentlemen, I could go on with hundreds of names and stories, but I don't want this talk to sound like a list. Let me ask you to imagine, as a case study, the periodic chart of the elements. That chart alone would summarize well the point I am making, that people with disabilties have played signficant roles in the history of science. Earlier I mentioned a deaf chemist, Gustaf Anders Ekeberg, who discovered Tantalum. Let me mention a few more. There was Ferdinand Reich, a German mineralogist who was color blind, and who assigned experiments to his assistant Hieronymus Richter. Through their analyses, Reich discovered Indium in 1863. Pierre Janssen, a French astronomer, had a physical disability since childhood. He discovered helium through spectroscopy. Alexander Williamson, who lost an eye as a child, helped significantly to clarify the nature of molecules. William Hyde Wollaston, the British chemist and physicist, was blind through much of his career. Those of you who are familiar with chemistry will recognize such names as Dalton, Bunsen, Davy, all who were challenged with blindness. James Summer, an American biochemist, studied chemistry against the advice of his teachers. With an amputated arm at the age of 17, few felt he was able to do scientific work. Summer received a Nobel Prize in 1946 for his research in enzyme chemistry. Francois Jacob, with a disability experienced in action during World War II while in his twenties, went on to become a physician and he later shared a Nobel Prize for his work on regulatory gene action. Jacob proposed the "messenger RNA" that served to carry the DNA blue print. Sir John Warcup Cornforth, a profoundly deaf chemist, won the Nobel Prize in 1975 for his work on the molecular structure of cholesterol. The British chemist Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen, had a speech impediment since he was a young boy.
I chose chemistry as an example. I could have chosen a case study from my own field - physics. In astronomy, for example, in addition to Galileo and Kepler, Leonhard Euler, the Swiss mathematician, was blinded in one eye at the age of 28, also from observing the sun. He lost his vision in the other eye at the age of 60, yet continued actively for seventeen more years with his excellent memory, publishing more than 800 papers.
And what about biology? August Weismann, a German biologist, went blind during his career and turned to theory, working out notions of evolution. Darwin wrote a preface for one of his books. Charles Bonnet, a Swiss naturalist who was deaf since the age of seven, also lost his vision and turned to theory, experimenting with the artificial insemination of dogs. Bonnet was one of the first to study photosynthesis and is viewed as one of the founders of modern biology. Thomas Meehan, the Father of American Horticulture, was born deaf. He assisted Darwin in the analysis of plants. Louis Pasteur, paralyzed by a stroke at the age of 46, went on for about 30 years and made his great breakthroughs in the study of anthrax and vaccination for rabies. The famed 19th century geologist Edward Orton experienced a paralytic stroke during his career. Unable to use his left hand, he continued to teach and to experiment. Orton was one of the first to recognize the possibility of the exhaustion of the supply of petroleum and natural gas and he urged conservation of such resources.
I am sure you agree that such stories, introduced appropriately in our science curricula, will help motivate further study and build self esteem. While I am on the subject of motivation, I would like to express my strong support for one of the emphases in this workshop - hands-on experiences. We have plenty of research in general science education on the value of participative learning and hands-on activities. In the education of deaf students, I have seen 5 or 6 studies directly investigating active learning in science, all which have shown that hands-on experiences lead to better achievement as well as positive motivation.
Mixing these two strategies, the use of hands-on activities and information about people with disabilities in the history of science as well as in contemporary science, should be in every teacher's lesson plans.
Who is to know that the student with a disability in our classroom is not destined to be among the great names I have just mentioned? When Galileo became totally blind, his friend Father Castelli said of him, "The noblest eye which nature ever made, is darkened; an eye so privileged, and gifted with such rare powers, that it may truly be said to have seen more than the eyes of all that are gone, and to have opened the eyes of all that are to come."