Hawking won the world’s respect – and gave disabled people like me hope

Growing up disabled, I had few role models. But this brilliant, witty scientist helped shift the negative stereotypes many face.

“It just seemed that cosmology was more exciting, because it really did seem to involve the big question: Where did the universe come from?” — Stephen Hawking, 8 January 1942 – 14 March 2018 Boingboing

Frances Ryan, The Guardian 14 March 2018

As with most of the famous figures whose passing now hits us via a news alert on our phones, I never met Stephen Hawking. In the vastness of the entire universe, you could say I was one speck and he was another. And yet I thought of him as a continual presence in my life, who – perhaps ironically, in the light of his illness, not to mention of his work on time – would always be there, somehow.

Growing up disabled in Britain, I didn’t have many role models. There are few statues of disabled leaders, no great lives with chronic disability chronicled in the history books. As a child, it’s easy to believe that disabled people have never really existed, and that when they did, it was as cripples to be pitied or burdens on society. In Hawking, we had a figure – brilliant, witty, kind – who confounded the negative stereotypes and the low expectations so often forced on those of us with a disability.

Stephen Hawking’s daughter: ‘You could ask my dad any question.’ Lucy Hawking describes the moment her famous scientist father, Doctor Stephen Hawking, was asked by a child – what happens if you fall into a black hole? “As a child you could ask any question you wanted – and get a reply,” she said. BBC News. Published on Youtube Jul 9, 2017

He wasn’t without faults (accusations of sexism were notable). He was also afforded opportunities – from wealth to healthcare to being non-disabled throughout school – that clearly enabled his success – opportunities too few young disabled people, facing cuts to multiple strands of support, enjoy today. But his groundbreaking research, as well as tireless commitment to the NHS and concern over Brexit, established him as someone who, though physically stripped of his voice, should be listened to.

In the rush to eulogise a figure such as Hawking the risk is that the media coverage either fails to acknowledge his disability – and to ignore him being a disabled person is as regressive as a white person saying they “don’t see colour” – or falls into condescending cliches and objectification. Within hours of the news of his death breaking, I saw headlines that reflected the (often well-intentioned) negative attitudes that so often plague discussions of disabled people: ones of “inspiration,” “overcoming disability” and references to “tragedy.” BBC Radio 5 Live asked listeners if Hawking had “inspired” them – a question unlikely to be posed about non-disabled academics. The Daily Mail referred to his “total disability” while at the other end of the spectrum, John Humphrys used Radio 4’s tribute segment to ask: “Did the science community cut him a lot of slack because he was so desperately disabled?”

To reduce a world-famous academic’s existence to one of tragedy and pluck doesn’t respect the reality of a disabled life.

Even the Guardian’s obituary mentioned how “despite his terrible physical circumstance, he almost always remained positive about life”, as if it is a surprise that a world-renowned scientist with a loving family could ever find happiness. Cartoonists illustrated him in heaven – a place Hawking did not believe existed – standing up, as if finally free from his wheelchair (an invention, much like his voice synthesiser, that actually empowered him to engage with society).

Even sentiments such as “He didn’t let his disability define him” – as Marsha de Cordova, shadow disabilities minister (and herself disabled) tweeted verge on repeating the ingrained belief that disability is an inherently negative thing – a part of identity that, unlike race or sexuality, should be played down.

This is not to say that Hawking’s disability didn’t help shape him. The thought that he had a sharply limited life expectancy – it was originally believed he would die within two years of his motor neurone disease diagnosis – by all accounts inspired Hawking to enjoy the present, and spurred on his hunger for scientific discovery. But to reduce a world-famous academic’s existence to one of tragedy and pluck respects neither the reality of a disabled life nor the love, success, humour and fulfilment that clearly marked Hawking’s. It is reminiscent of the countless “inspirational” memes and posters that throughout his life featured Hawking’s image – often using his body as inspiration for non-disabled people (“If he can succeed, so can you!”) or criticising “lesser” disabled people (“The only disability is a bad attitude”). Hawking, like all of us, deserves more than lazy, ableist tropes.

Amid all the tributes to Hawking’s contribution to scientific discovery, I would like to remember what he contributed – perhaps unknowingly – to many disabled people: a sense of pride, encouragement, and hope. This was a genius who gained the world’s respect from his wheelchair. Hawking’s achievements alone will not have begun to overturn deep-seated prejudice, but he has played a significant part in shifting the misconceptions that still routinely mark too many disabled people’s lives. Hawking’s lesser-known lesson is one I hope others growing up disabled will be left with: we can all reach for the stars.

Source The Guardian

Also see
Stephen Hawking has died. The famed physicist was 76 in Boing Boing
Stephen Hawking: Tributes pour in for ‘inspirational’ physicist in BBC News
Stephen Hawking: a scientist who never forgot the value of the NHS in The Guardian
A young Stephen Hawking would never have made it in today’s age of austerity in The Guardian
Mind over matter’: Stephen Hawking – obituary by Roger Penrose in The Guardian
Stephen Hawking: A life in pictures in BBC News
Stephen Hawking: Black holes, making science cool and being funny in BBC News
Stephen Hawking: The science that made him famous in BBC News
How Has Stephen Hawking Lived Past 70 with ALS? in Scientific American
Stephen Hawking’s Disability Activism Was as Invaluable as His Science in Slate

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