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14 January 2015

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.

By Alex Taylor

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.

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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

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