Stephen Hawking: An icon of science and disability

Sad news today. The legendary Professor Stephen Hawking has died.

The word “inspiration” seems to be attributed to disabled people too often nowadays, and often for very mundane reasons. But in the case of Stephen Hawking inspirational is a very appropriate superlative. Hawking was diagnosed with motor neuron disease at the age of 21, and given only a few years to live. So to make it to the age of 76 is astonishing. And he didn’t only survive, but he changed our understanding of the universe and physics.

He wrote bestselling books, travelled the world, and even experienced microgravity. This was a man who not only laughed in the face of adversity, but kicked it in the balls. To me he is an inspiration because he shows that it’s not only possible to have a long life with such a debilitating illness, but to thrive as well. He showed it’s possible to achieve great things as a disabled person, and to live life to the very fullest.

Many people seem to make the assumption that disabled people are not going to achieve much in life. They just expect them to exist and are surprised when they see them leave the house. So in Stephen Hawking we had a very clear example of a wheelchair user excelling in life and proving misconceptions wrong.

Hawking not only achieved great things but he did it with a great sense of humour. He didn’t let his physical condition dictate his outlook on life, and he encouraged other disabled people to do the same. In his words “Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically”.

Hawking was a brilliant communicator of science and wasn’t afraid to mingle with popular culture. He appeared on shows like The Simpsons, The Big Bang Theory, and even featured in the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Paralympics. He brought science to the masses in a way that people could understand, and undoubtedly inspired many to study physics. We need scientists like Stephen Hawking who don’t take themselves too seriously and are willing to have a laugh.

I will leave you with one of my favourite quotes of his regarding disabled people:

“If you are disabled, it is probably not your fault, but it is no good blaming the world or expecting it to take pity on you. One has to have a positive attitude and must make the best of the situation that one finds oneself in; if one is physically disabled, one cannot afford to be psychologically disabled as well. In my opinion, one should concentrate on activities in which one’s physical disability will not present a serious handicap.

I am afraid that Olympic Games for the disabled do not appeal to me, but it is easy for me to say that because I never liked athletics anyway. On the other hand, science is a very good area for disabled people because it goes on mainly in the mind. Of course, most kinds of experimental work are probably ruled out for most such people, but theoretical work is almost ideal. My disabilities have not been a significant handicap in my field, which is theoretical physics. Indeed, they have helped me in a way by shielding me from lecturing and administrative work that I would otherwise have been involved in. I have managed, however, only because of the large amount of help I have received from my wife, children, colleagues and students. I find that people in general are very ready to help, but you should encourage them to feel that their efforts to aid you are worthwhile by doing as well as you possibly can.”

RIP Professor.



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