A selection of physically disabled inventors whose names were new to me but have changed the world we live in
May is National Inventor’s Month! And that inspired me to learn about some of the many scientists and inventors with disabilities. Some are well-known — Steven Hawking, Temple Grandin– while others are famous names whose disabilities I’d never heard a dang thing about (Isaac Newton had epilepsy?!). I learned how many truly incredible scientists have suffered vision or hearing loss… but as someone with invisible chronic pain, I decided that that was a bit out of my lane to focus on. That’s why I’ve put together a selection of physically disabled inventors whose names were completely new to me, but have nonetheless shaped the world we live in.
First, here’s a quote from Ralph Braun, #3 on our disabled inventors list, that really resonated with me.
“You see, I don’t mind being admired or looked up to because of who I am as a person or because I have built a successful business. But I do mind being called a hero for doing virtually the same things as everyone else. And I know plenty of other people with disabilities who feel the same way.”
Ralph Braun, “Rise Above: How One Man’s Search for Mobility Helped the World Get Moving”
Pictured with the first wheelchair-accessible vehicle, an adapted postal Jeep, in 1967. (Photo from Braunability.com.)
What were they dealing with? Diagnosed with cerebral palsy at the age of one.
Field or subspecialty? Software engineering and small business
What did they achieve in it? She invented a cloud software platform used by 130 micro-finance companies across Ghana. This cemented her status not just among disabled inventors but as one of South Africa’s most important figures in financial technology.
What else did they do? To start with, in 2013, South Africa’s CEO Magazine named Bedwei the most influential woman in business and government in Africa for the financial sector. What’s more, Farida is not just a disabled inventor: she also published a comic book, Karmzah: Unleashing, about “an archaeologist with cerebral palsy, who gets superpowers from an ancient Juju man” who “bestows upon her superpowers through her crutches.” In conclusion, this comic looks rad as hell. Check it out!
What were they dealing with? Herr has been climbing since childhood. On one ascent he and his partner lost their way in a blizzard. As a result, by the time they were rescued, Herr’s legs were so frostbitten that doctors had to amputate his legs at the knee.
Field / subspecialty? Mechanical engineering and biophysics. Herr is a professor at the MIT Media Lab, where he directs the biomechatronics research group and co-directs the K. Lisa Yang Center for Bionics.
What did they achieve in it? When he was first told he would never climb again, Herr created prosthetic feet with high toe stiffness that made it possible to stand on small rock edges the width of a coin. In addition, he designed titanium-spiked feet that assisted him in ascending steep ice walls. Finally, he had the ability to change his height, fit into a less awkward spot, grab previously-out-of-reach hand and toe holes, and eventually climb at a more advanced level than he had before the accident. As a result, Herr has the honor of being the first person with a major amputation to perform competitively in a sport alongside top athletes who do not have mobility issues.
Scaling New Heights
After his climbing career, Herr began publishing in the field of rehabilitation science. He subsequently authored or coauthored over 200 peer-reviewed manuscripts and patents. Cementing his status as one of the top disabled inventors in the world were innovations like a computer-controlled artificial knee, commercially available as the Rheo Knee, which integrates a microprocessor that continually senses the joint’s position and the loads applied to the limb. Additionally, he developed another of his best-known inventions: the world’s first powered ankle-foot prosthesis, “clinically shown to be the first leg prosthesis in history to reach human normalization, allowing amputees to walk with normal levels of speed and metabolism as if their legs were biological once again.”
Most recently, in 2015 Herr’s MIT research group invented the Agonist-Antagonist Myoneural Interface, a novel surgical procedure for limb amputation and neural interfacing that allows persons with limb loss to control their synthetic limbs through thought, as well as to experience natural proprioceptive sensations from the synthetic limb.
What else did they do? Herr has told his story National Geographic film, Ascent: The Story of Hugh Herr, and a book, Second Ascent: The Story of Hugh Herr by Alison Osius. Additionally, there have been episodes and articles about his life featured in CNN, The Economist, Discover and Nature. Finally, check out his TED talk!
What were they dealing with: Muscular dystrophy: Diagnosed at age 6, he started using a wheelchair at 14.
Field or subspecialty? Mechanical engineering: Braun earned the nickname “father of the mobility movement.”
What did they do in it? Braun first created a battery-powered scooter, and in the 1960s he invented the first wheelchair-accessible van with hand controls. His successes over the years as a disabled inventor led to the founding of a company, BraunAbility. In 1991 the company created the first accessible minivan: inventing and devising a way to integrate a wheelchair lift onto a commercially available van opened up a whole new world of accessibility and travel for people in chairs.
What else did they do? Braun’s work is in a class of its own, even among other disabled inventors, and his inventions have been widely recognized and celebrated. He received the Champion of Change honor by the White House in 2012 for his dedication to improving the lives of individuals with physical disabilities. The same year, he was inducted into the NMEDA Hall of Fame, and the Commission for the Handicapped and the Indiana State Board of Health recognized BraunAbility as Employer of the Year. Finally, Braun published an autobiography, “Rise Above: How One Man’s Search for Mobility Helped the World Get Moving,” and founded the Ralph Braun Foundation to help those with limited income afford the mobility equipment they need.
Charles C. Price
What were they dealing with? At age six, he blew his right hand off in an accident with a box of dynamite caps.
Field / subspecialty? Chemistry– he is considered to be the father of “polymer science” and served as President of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in 1965.
What did they invent or achieve? Price is primarily known as the inventor of polyether polyurethane foam rubber, which became widely used in sponges, insulation and building materials, flotation devices, and packaging. In addition, he contributed to the detection of chemical weapons, the development of chloroquine as a treatment for malaria, and treatments for cancer.
What else did they do? Price ran as the Democratic nominee for Indiana’s 3rd congressional district in the 1952 election and served as President of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in 1965. Price was an active Quaker and an advocate for nuclear disarmament. Finally, he was super into yacht racing.
As you can see, most of the pictures that remain of Price were staged or framed by the photographer in such a way as to hide his hand and his disability.
Like yourself some juicy audio? Check out this oral history interview with Price from 1979!
Dr. Odette L Shotwell
What were they dealing with? She had polio as a child, which resulted in “severe, painful paralysis which [made] walking in an erect position impossible.”
Field/subspecialty? Organic Chemistry
What did they achieve in it? As a USDA Research Chemist, Shotwell discovered two new antibiotics and assisted with the discovery of two others. Finally, she invented novel ways to separate antibiotics from fermenting microbes.
What else did they do? Through her career and retirement Shotwell continued fighting for the rights of others. To start with, she was president of the local League of Women Voters chapter. Additionally, she sat on the education committee of her local NAACP chapter, led an initiative to tutoring underserved kids. Finally, she was part of the effort to integrate Peoria schools in the 1960s.
Dr. Florence Seibert
What were they dealing with? Polio: she wore leg braces daily and walked with a limp.
What did they achieve in it? Her work purifying some of the elements involved in testing for tuberculosis helped develop a reliable test for this illness for the first time. This work, done in the l930s, is now the international standard for tuberculin made in the world. Following this, in 1942 she received the American Chemical Society’s Francis P. Garvan Gold Medal for her work finally making tests like these reliable. In addition, she perfected a distilling process that made intravenous drug therapy safe.
What else did they do? After her retirement Seibert volunteered for 13 more years in programs examining the etiology of cancer. Finally, Seibert was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Wanna Read More About These Disabled Inventors?
Karmzah: Unleashing by Ferida Bedwei
Second Ascent: The Story of Hugh Herr by Alison Osius.
However, this book looks to be so old that copies are pricy… instead, you might check your local library.
“Rise Above: How One Man’s Search for Mobility Helped the World Get Moving,” by Ralph Braun
(Those are affiliate links, on the very off chance somebody ends up buying one. However, if you’ve got a local bookstore I prefer you go there.)