With the death of Professor Stephen Hawking, the world has lost a true light from our universe. His life was one of astonishment which all of us felt we shared in, whether our eyes were opened by his pioneering work as a physicist, his tireless campaigning as an activist, or his astounding longevity following a diagnosis of ALS that many thought would take his life while he was still a young man.
It is apt, then, that in his sad death he is still able to reveal to us the inner workings of our society, and the great strides we still need to make in supporting disabled people to live their lives to the fullest, and undo ableist prejudices that suggest we can’t succeed on our own merit.
It would be tempting to believe that Professor Hawking’s success has already rid us of these harmful notions, but his death has shown us that, sadly, this isn’t the case.
In an interview with Brian Cox, John Humphrys asked whether he believed that Professor Hawking had been “cut a bit of slack” by other scientists because he was disabled. The implication in that question, of course, is that Professor Hawking’s disability shielded him from critique, and that perhaps he wasn’t as pioneering a physicist as everyone thought.
Many people were, quite rightly, outraged by this suggestion, but I believe it raises an interesting point; not that Professor Hawking wasn’t as brilliant as he seemed, but that his disability itself was overlooked because of how accomplished he was. Put simply, Professor Hawking revealed to us the many things disabled people can achieve if they are given the right support.
So why is it our societies still refuse to support us?
Professor Hawking the Activist
Outside of his outstanding contributions to science, Professor Hawking was a longstanding activist, in particular, campaigning for improved access and support for disabled people in Cambridge, and introducing adapted student housing at the university. He also maintained that without the NHS he wouldn’t have survived, stating unequivocally:
“The NHS must be preserved from commercial interests and protected from those who want to privatise it.”
But it wasn’t simply the NHS that allowed Professor Hawking to overcome the structural barriers that many disabled people face on a daily basis. As a promising young physicist at Oxford and Cambridge by the time his symptoms developed, he was afforded the kind of support that few disabled people in the UK today can ever hope to access.
Following a tracheotomy in 1985 after a bout of pneumonia that nearly killed him, the NHS intended to put Professor Hawking in a nursing home, since he now required round-the-clock nursing care. Thanks to pressure from his family and his status as a physicist, however, an American Foundation agreed to fund the cost of his care at home, allowing a team of nurses to be on-hand wherever he went, and giving Professor Hawking the freedom he needed to continue with his work.
Similarly, the cofounder of Intel, Gordon Moore, was personally involved in designing, testing, and working with Professor Hawking to develop the revolutionary computer system he used to communicate. Since 1997, the company provided the customised PCs and technical support he needed to ensure his voice was heard.
All of these things and more helped Professor Hawking to live his life as independently as possible, and he quite rightly became one of the world’s foremost scientists and a shining example of what disabled people can achieve. But in his death, we must remember that none of this would have been possible without a level of medical access and social support that is simply out of the reach of most disabled people living in the world today.
The Intrinsic Value of Humanity
In remembering his life, then, we should all ask in what ways we value our humanity. Is it in the work we produce? The capital we create? Or is it simply because as humans we all have an intrinsic worth? I, like Professor Hawking, believe firmly in the latter, and if society seeks to continue this extraordinary man’s legacy, then it could do far worse than to afford disabled people better access to medical treatment, properly-funded social care systems, and the chance to live an independent life as freely as anyone else.
Let Professor Hawking’s legacy be that we continue to fight for disabled people. Let us recognise his brilliance as a physicist as well as his personal tenacity, and let us also recognise that if he had become disabled before he attended university, then in 1985 we may have lost one of the greatest minds of a generation to a life spent in a nursing home; a reality that is still ever-present for thousands of disabled people today.
Finally, let us recognise that regardless of our particular skills, whatever they may be, we all deserve the chance to live our lives to the fullest. Professor Hawking was given the tools to do just that, and now we need to provide the same resources for every other disabled person to do the same, regardless of their wealth, their influence, or their monetary contributions. We might not all be world-renowned physicists, but we all matter.
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