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Body? What Body? Considering Ability and Disability in STEM Disciplines

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

Difference, Disability, and (De)Politicization: The Invisible Axes of Diversity

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.247.1 - 23.247.16



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Paper Authors


Amy E. Slaton Drexel University

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Amy E. Slaton is a professor of history at Drexel University. Her most recent book is Race, Rigor and Selectivity in US Engineering: The History of an Occupational Color Line. She is currently writing on issues of equity surrounding high-tech workforce preparation.

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Body?  What  Body?:  Considering  Physical  Ability  and  Disability    In  STEM  Disciplines    Issues  of  minority  inclusion  in  STEM  fields,  marking  the  presence  or  absence  of  certain  groups  in  these  disciplines,  are  often  treated  by  analysts  as  “inside/outside”  problems:  some  groups  are  included,  some  are  not,  we  learn,  and  the  resulting  discrimination  needs  to  be  addressed  by  securing  inclusion  for  the  “missing”  folk.    That  dichotomous  understanding,  however,  hides  the  complicated  marginalities  within  marginalities  inhering  in  American  science  and  technology  sectors.    The  educators  and  policy  makers  who  have  worked  to  correct  STEM  under-­‐representation  are  themselves  often  treated  as  outside  the  pedagogical  mainstream;  historians  and  sociologists  concerned  with  matters  of  identity  and  equity  in  science  and  technology  are  less  explicable  still  to  their  home  disciplines,  perhaps  helping  to  explain  their  great  rarity.  Meanwhile,  all  of  these  scholars  have  focused  primarily  on  gender  and  to  a  smaller  extent  on  ethnicity  and  race.    Physical  ability  and  disability  in  STEM  disciplines  remain  subjects  of  almost  complete  invisibility  in  both  educational  and  social  scientific  spheres.    This  paper  considers  this  absence:  why  do  persons  with  disabilities  constitute  an  identity  that  remains  nearly  invisible  in  STEM  education  theory,  institutional  planning,  and  social  scientific  studies  of  those  fields,  even  where  other  forms  of  exclusion  have  come  under  study?  What  ideas  about  bodies  and  intellectual  abilities  and  the  linkages  between  them  are  foundational  to  STEM,  and  why  have  social  scientists  almost  completely  failed  to  consider  these  powerful  cultural  normativities?  By  extension,  what  might  the  methods  of  Science  and  Engineering  Studies  bring  to  such  study?  Do  receptive  audiences  for  such  an  inquiry  exist?  Using  the  case  of  a  visually  impaired  undergraduate  at  a  large  state  university  who  successfully  addressed  the  discriminatory  epistemological  suppositions  of  her  lab  course  instructors,  this  paper  will  describe  presumptions  made  about  the  student’s  abilities;  about  the  nature  of  learning  in  STEM  fields;  and  about  precision  and  accuracy  in  scientific  data  as  functions  of  some  bodies  and  not  others.  This  paper  asks,  as  well,  if  risks—either  social  or  reputational-­‐-­‐  accrue  to  those  who  undertake  such  analyses.  

Slaton, A. E. (2013, June), Body? What Body? Considering Ability and Disability in STEM Disciplines Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--19261

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