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

Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge