How Stephen Hawking Changed Perceptions of People With Disabilities
Around the world, people are mourning the loss of Stephen Hawking, who died March 13 at the age of 76. A renowned physicist, cosmologist and author, he became one of the most influential scientists of all time. He developed revolutionary theories about the Big Bang and radiation emitting from black holes, which was named “Hawking radiation” in his honor. He won numerous scientific awards and was equally popular with the general public, writing bestselling books and making cameo appearances on shows like “Star Trek” and “The Simpsons.” He accomplished all this after being diagnosed with ALS at age 22 and told he had just a few years to live.
Hawking gained fame outside scientific circles after his 1988 book “A Brief History of Time” became a New York Times bestseller. I was a kid when “A Brief History of Time” was released, and along with 10 million other people, my mom bought a copy. I remember seeing it on the coffee table, seeing a picture of a man whose disability was more severe than mine on the front cover. At that age I hadn’t met many adults with disabilities and wondered what my future with cerebral palsy would hold. “Who is he?” I wondered. “What is this book about?” I tried reading it, but my intellectual strengths have always leaned more towards the literary. I won’t pretend to understand the intricacies of black holes or any of the other contributions Stephen Hawking made to science. But here is what I do know.
Stephen Hawking transformed the fields of physics and cosmology. He also changed the way society perceives people with disabilities. Hawking’s work did not center around his disability; in fact early in his career, he rarely got involved in disability advocacy. “I try to lead as normal a life as possible and not think about my condition or regret the things it prevents me from doing, which are not that many,” he said when asked about the role ALS played in his life. Instead, he simply pursued his passions and showed that people with disabilities can excel in all kinds of fields. Hawking lived unapologetically; he drove his wheelchair fast, got married and divorced twice and traveled all over the world. He became a pop culture icon and wasn’t afraid to laugh at himself. Undoubtedly we need disability advocates who fight injustice and discrimination, but we also need people like Hawking who lead by example and become role models for people with and without disabilities.
Before Stephen Hawking came along, people with speech disabilities were often dismissed as mentally unaware and unable to contribute to society. As one of the earliest and certainly most famous users of AAC (augmented and alternative communication), he made talking through a computer not just acceptable but cool. It became a mark of genius rather than limitation. With his awesome robot voice, Hawking even sang, joining Monty Python in a rendition of “The Galaxy Song.” He demonstrated how much we have to gain when everyone has access to technology.
Some tributes to Hawking have commended him by saying he made amazing contributions to science “despite his disability.” But statements like that sell him short. While his physical challenges did get in the way at times, he should be respected and remembered as successful compared to almost everyone, not just “for someone with a disability.” Hawking once commented on this in a 2013 documentary about his life. “Sometimes I wonder if I’m as famous for my wheelchair and disabilities as I am for my discoveries,” he said. His disability did make him more newsworthy — but his scientific accomplishments were genuine, and they are the reason he will be remembered as one of the greatest scientists of all time, alongside luminaries such as Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton.
If anything, Stephen Hawking’s disability influenced his work in a positive way. “I relish the rare opportunity I’ve been given to live the life of the mind,” he once said. While those without disabilities often perceive people like Hawking — and myself — as being “trapped” in our bodies, they actually give us a kind of freedom to focus on our thoughts, to not be constrained by the traditional expectations and demands society places on physical appearance. The progression of Hawking’s ALS contributed to his ability to think in different ways. “By losing the finer dexterity in my hands, I was forced to travel through the universe in my mind,” he said. Hawking could have escaped into the furthest reaches of the universe and stayed there, but instead he brought that world to the rest of us through his books and lectures. He didn’t want science — or disability — to be distant from everyday people.
As a person with a disability, Stephen Hawking was inspirational for the right reasons. We need true heroes like him — people who succeed while living with disability, not despite it or solely because of it. He inspired people with and without disabilities to pursue careers in science. His long, fruitful life is proof that people with disabilities can accomplish just about anything. He showed the world how fulfilling life with a disability can be.
Stephen Hawking leaves behind a tremendous scientific legacy. He also leaves an important legacy for the disability community and a challenge to society. He would never have achieved his level of greatness without his brilliant mind, sheer determination and an unfailing sense of humor. But he also had advantages many people don’t, including a loving and financially stable family, a top-notch education and a wife, children and professional colleagues who valued and supported him. How many Stephen Hawkings have been overlooked because they can’t afford an AAC device or access transportation to college? How many potential writers, business owners and teachers are out there struggling to prove their ALS, blindness or cerebral palsy doesn’t make them incapable of achieving great things?
Most people with disabilities aren’t extraordinary geniuses like Stephen Hawking, nor should that kind of expectation be pushed on us. But we all have something to offer, a gift to share with the world. We can contribute — if we’re given the chance. If you admired Stephen Hawking, honor his life by doing your part to bring support systems and opportunities to more people with disabilities. Encourage a child with a disability in your school or neighborhood. Hire someone with a disability at your company. Cast an actor with a disability in your play or movie. Look for the talented people around you whose potential others may not see.
Stephen Hawking once said, “Because every new day could be my last, I have developed a desire to make the most of each and every minute.” And he did. During every moment of the over 50 years he lived with a progressive disability everyone thought would take his life within just a few, he thought, taught, laughed, loved and changed the world. What more can any of us hope for than to be fortunate enough to do the same?