Eddie Redmayne (right) as the young Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything”.
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Stephen Hawking would not be Stephen Hawking if he had been born with his disability

The physicist is held up as an example of what you can achieve in life if you have a disability, but he was only diagnosed with motor neurone disease when he was 21 – his career was set in motion while he was still able-bodied.

Ask yourself this question: did you know that Stephen Hawking was only diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21? And if you’ve seen The Theory of Everything, can you honestly say you knew beforehand?

On the surface, pondering this may seem irrelevant. After all, the fact remains he is now disabled. But in honour of a man who has spent his whole life searching for the perfect equation, let’s respect for a moment that the order of things can hold vital importance, and lead to vastly differing conclusions.

This is certainly the case regarding perceptions of Stephen Hawking. The cosmologist was catapulted to worldwide fame following the publication of his book A Brief History of Time, yet it is sometimes easy to forget this sudden surge of recognition stemmed not only from his disability, but the small matter of theorising the nature of the universe.

I should know. Hawking’s career-defining book hit the shelves in 1988, and two years later I was born with cerebral palsy. By the time I had reached my formative years in primary school, society and those around me felt comfortable thrusting forward the image of Hawking, his wheelchair, and his genius as my source of inspiration. An anomaly blessed with extreme intelligence, the benchmark for what disabled people could achieve – transcending the tyranny of low expectation so readily shoved upon people in my position.

While this was no doubt well-meant – the widespread ignorance of the truth has twisted the man into something he is not. To be clear, Hawking gained his academic and scientific credentials whilst still very much able-bodied, even coxing one of Oxford’s rowing crews prior to transferring to Cambridge to complete his PhD thesis. Had he been disabled from birth, it is very doubtful he would have been given the same opportunity to establish himself.

Yet it is equally difficult to deny that Hawking’s work attracted such clamour precisely because his physical state and appearance juxtaposed the excellence of his work. Hawking’s doctor touched on the issue in his diagnosis. As the film’s dialogue puts it: “Your thoughts won't change, it's just no one will know what they are."

Of course, we now know speech synthesis has given Hawking new ways to continue to communicating, allowing the genius to shine through.  Even in today’s age of Google and Wikipedia, there is no other living scientist who is as instantly recognisable.

This battle of appearance over reality gets to the heart of the confusion over who Stephen Hawking is and how he ought to be explained. Long since anointed the founding forefather of “acceptable” disability, it is in fact his bright mind that gave him clout – way before he had motor neurone disease. By failing to recognise that Hawking’s success had nothing to do with disability, we give the disease undue credit for his perfectly able mind and outstanding scientific achievements.

This is even more problematic considering recent figures from the Office for Disability Issues, which found that four in five disabled people, like Hawking, are not born with their impairments. Despite this, they are still less likely to work full time, and similarly, less likely to be in high-level employment: 49 per cent as compared to 56 per cent of able-bodied people.  

And this is where the order of things becomes incredibly important. Hawking very nearly missed out on a First at Oxford, not due to lack of ability, but because of a failure to apply himself properly on questions and examinations he found too easy. The professors waived these indiscretions at his disciplinary undergraduate viva when they realised his potential.

Had Hawking been born with a disability, he would still have had this same potential – the same mind, daring, courage and thought, but he would have faced very different prejudices. It is likely that even the most basic access to advanced education would have been deemed out of the question, blocking the groundwork from which the mind-boggling theories emerged.

If in some parallel universe, I had the chance to go back in time and speak to my younger self and those thrusting Hawking’s wheelchair upon me, I would say this. Aspire to his levels of intelligence but do not judge yourself against them, and most of all, do not think it was his disability that made him great. He set in motion his achievements when he wasn’t disabled. While others may take you and your disability at face value, see yourself and your dreams as perfectly able. Stephen Hawking was still Stephen Hawking, wheelchair or otherwise. So are you.

Alex Taylor is on Twitter @ykts_net

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder