I’m a Disabled Man, and Here’s What You’re Getting Wrong About Stephen Hawking’s Death
On March 13, 2018, news broke that famed physicist Stephen Hawking had passed away. When celebrities pass on, I usually feel a brief pang of sadness before something else distracts me on my social media feed. But as a disabled man, I felt a little bit differently about Hawking’s passing.
Aside from Christopher Reeve, Stephen Hawking has been one of the most public disabled figures in my lifetime. Our experiences of disability were vastly different: as an adult, Hawking developed early on-set Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, while I was born with cerebral palsy, a disability that, for the most part, is stable and unchanging. I wouldn’t say that he was a role model per se, but every time I saw a video or picture of him in his wheelchair, my disabled heart would burst with a sense of indescribable pride. Here was someone who looked like me — a wheelchair user — doing great things that would change the world.
So when I saw that he had passed, I lingered just a little while longer on his story. After all, one of my teammates in disability was gone, and even as I type this, it hurts a little bit to consider the implications of that. People with disabilities get so little recognition from the outside world; we’re rarely depicted in popular culture, unless it’s in a way that pities or infantilizes us. The significance of a disabled man being viewed as one of the brightest minds of our generation cannot be understated.
As a disabled person, however, I’m also troubled by the way the media has framed his life and his passing. Among the run-of-the-mill condolences I saw on social media, there were a few that bothered me, including a meme depicting the spirit of Mr. Hawking walking out of his wheelchair, as if he were now free of it.
This is how I will always remember Dr. Stephen Hawking, freed from the confines of his wheelchair, with the biggest smile on his face I have ever seen. Thank you for your service to humanity. From stardust you were made, to stardust may you return… RIP (1942-2018) pic.twitter.com/sTbOq9WeSn
— Loretta Whitesides (@lorettahidalgo) March 14, 2018
As a fellow wheelchair user, these kinds of depictions, while perhaps well-intentioned, sting. I wouldn’t want someone to erase my identity as a disabled person in my death, as it is a huge intrinsic part of who I am and how I see the world around me. It is unfair that in order for us to celebrate his life, we feel it necessary to remove a part of who Stephen Hawking was: a disabled man.
When I hear people saying things like, “He went on despite all odds,” I want to point out that Hawking went on because he had no choice not to. His disability was what it was; he wanted to live his life and pursue his academic passions, and he knew that his disabled identity was going to need to be a part of that.
Pro-tip to journalists:
Stephen Hawking *used* a wheelchair. He is the active person in the arrangement. The wheelchair helped him do things. It did not bind him.
— Alexandra Erin (@alexandraerin) March 14, 2018
Stephen Hawking doesn’t believe in heaven. It’s important to respect that.
He also considered his disability integral to his identity since his healthcare + wheelchair + voice synthesizer were tools that gave him access to his success.
— Eman Khan ツ (@punnysamosa) March 14, 2018
It also bothers me when I see the media framing Hawking’s disability as something he “suffered.” As a disabled person, I am sure there were days when Hawking did suffer the effects of his disability (all disabled people have been there at some point or another). But I am also sure there were moments where his disability was a source of great humor, levity, and connection for him, and it is important that we acknowledge that as well when we talk about him. I mean, c’mon, he had guest spots on The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory. The man could clearly laugh at himself.
When I think of Hawking’s passing, I don’t see his spirit rising up out of his wheelchair to be free, because I don’t see his disability as something he needed to be freed from. Instead, I take comfort in the knowledge that wherever he is now, whether it be among the cosmos or in a black hole of nothingness, his disability is with him.
Rest in power, Mr. Hawking, and thank you.
Originally published on menshealth.com