Skip to main content

Disability in Physics: Learning from Binary Mistakes

Part of the Cultural Studies of Science Education book series (CSSE,volume 19)


If you are White, male, cisgender, straight, and able-bodied, you can say something as simple as “I am a physicist” with relative ease. The more those descriptors are different, though, the more complex the story becomes in the minds of others, yourself, or both. A simple claim such as “I am a physicist” is more likely to be questioned by students or colleagues if a Black woman says it instead of a White man. The person who doesn’t fit the expected image of the identity is questioned, pushed against, and continues to be invisible in images and representations of the field. One of these dimensions of invisibility is disability. Students with disabilities face extra barriers coming into STEM fields, on top of those that physics already takes pride in (“you must be this brilliant to enter”). Some of these barriers are institutional, as in labs that have been physically constructed to be accessible only to a narrow range of bodies. Some of the barriers are social or emotional, as students must navigate choices about whether to request accommodations and stand out, or to stay silent and continue at a disadvantage. Until recently, disability has been virtually absent from the physics education research literature. Our goal in this chapter is to introduce frameworks from disability studies that are relevant to physics education, including critical perspectives to integrate disability with other identity facets such as gender or race and ethnicity.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

USD   29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-41933-2_8
  • Chapter length: 24 pages
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
USD   119.00
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • ISBN: 978-3-030-41933-2
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
Softcover Book
USD   159.00
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Hardcover Book
USD   159.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)


  1. 1.

    In fact, students with disabilities at 2-year schools are more likely than other students at 2-year schools to pursue STEM (Lee 2014). A recent demographic review by Kanim and Cid (2017) shows that two-year colleges are seriously under-represented in physics education research studies. This bias adds to the invisibility of students with disabilities in physics.

  2. 2.

    Even at this level of summary statistics, numbers are elusive because how (or if) the data is collected varies widely. The figures for PhDs come from the Survey of Earned Doctorates, which in 2005 reported less than 2% of STEM doctorates going to students with disabilities (Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering 2009). In 2012, the question from which these numbers derive was changed from “Are you a person with a disability?” to ask about functional limitations in several areas, so numbers before and after 2012 are not directly comparable.

  3. 3.

    Work that tests interventions can make a real difference for women or other marginalized students (Brahmia 2008; Hill et al. 2010). But there is an often-neglected flip side: as Brickhouse and Potter (2001) put it, “what needed transformation was the schools, not the girls.”

  4. 4.

    Objectivity is a concept with its own complicated history (Daston 1992) and plethora of meanings (Barad 2007; Harding 1986), but we take as given here that it is held as a core value of modern physics.

  5. 5.

    Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, also previously known as attention deficit disorder.

  6. 6.

    Defining and enforcing “normal” has become a society-wide endeavor linking prisons, factories, and schools (Foucault 1979). At universities, power is handed down by credentialed authority figures in elaborate ceremonies. This credentialization process becomes its own justification for maintaining authority (P. Oliver 2010)—in the emotional moment of a prestigious graduation, it becomes easy not to ask why none of the professors or the new PhDs use a wheelchair or a sign language interpreter.

  7. 7.

    For essays and fiction exploring this point, see Uncanny Magazine’s Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction! issue (Sjunneson-Henry et al. 2018).

  8. 8.

    At least, difference between researchers—even when the goal is a relentless search for differences among research subjects (C. N. Jacklin 1981).

  9. 9.

    Session BJ,


Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Adrienne Traxler .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2020 Springer Nature Switzerland AG

About this chapter

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Traxler, A., Blue, J. (2020). Disability in Physics: Learning from Binary Mistakes. In: Gonsalves, A.J., Danielsson, A.T. (eds) Physics Education and Gender. Cultural Studies of Science Education, vol 19. Springer, Cham.

Download citation

  • DOI:

  • Published:

  • Publisher Name: Springer, Cham

  • Print ISBN: 978-3-030-41932-5

  • Online ISBN: 978-3-030-41933-2

  • eBook Packages: EducationEducation (R0)