When diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, at the age of 21, Stephen Hawking was told he had two years to live. Not only did he defy medical experts, he became a world-famous scientist and changed the way we look at the universe. The recent film “The Theory of Everything” tells his story.

Hawking, who celebrates his 73rd birthday on January 8, isn’t the only disabled person to have faced barriers to an education and career in science. People with disabilities are one of the largest untapped pools of potential scientists, engineers and technicians. Yet they remain underrepresented because their disabilities make it difficult to participate in academic programs, especially programs with hands-on training like labs and field tests.

To raise awareness about the abilities of the disabled and promote equal access to science education and employment, the White House has honored 14 Champions of Change for leading the way. Among them:

Rafael San Miguel. (White House) Like many kids, Rafael San Miguel wanted to be an astronaut, but couldn’t because he was deaf. So he did the next best thing and joined NASA’s space shuttle program as a scientist. Now he is a flavor chemist at Coca-Cola. San Miguel has developed a series of fun, educational experiments to inspire young students to pursue education in science and math.

Nasrin Taei. (White House) Nasrin Taei is a biochemistry student researching ways to reduce heart attacks in young adults. She is grateful for the accommodations she received as a student under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark statute enacted in 1990. Taei volunteers as a science tutor and mentors secondary school students with disabilities.

Ralph Braun. (White House)Ralph Braun was diagnosed with a spinal cord disorder at an early age. After using a traditional wheelchair in his youth, he set out to create a motorized one. A few years later, Braun donned his inventor’s cap again and developed a wheelchair lift for boarding vans. Today, his company is a world leader in accessible vehicles and wheelchair lifts.

These leaders prove that when the playing field is level, people with disabilities can excel in science fields, develop new products and innovations, open successful businesses, and contribute equally to our economies and societies.