“The downside of my celebrity is that I cannot go anywhere in the world without being recognized… The wheelchair gives me away.”
— Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)
The passing of theoretical physicist & cosmologist Professor Stephen Hawking earlier this week leaves a big, gaping hole in the scientific world. A black hole, surely, of infinite size, depth and velocity— so powerful that probably only Dr. Hawking, himself, could describe it. I won’t pretend to attempt it because my scientific knowledge is limited to shit I’ve read in National Geographic Magazine. And random stuff I’ve Googled on Wikipedia.
So, yeah, I’m not very sciencey.
Professor Hawking was also probably the most famous person in the world that happened to use a wheelchair. A real-life Professor Xavier from X-Men… only with glasses and a better haircut.
For the majority of his life, Dr. Hawking had ALS— a progressive motor neuron disease. Due to advancing medical science, and the top-notch home care he had available to him, Professor Hawking’s lifespan exceeded that of many others with ALS. (Which speaks to the importance of self-managed home care for those with disabilities and why it should be more readily available— and covered!)
His life was even the subject of the 2014 biopic, The Theory of Everything, starring Eddie Redmayne. Eddie won the Academy Award for his portrayal of Hawking, which was not surprising because everyone knows that the best way to win an Oscar is to play a disabled character. Of course, the caveat being that the actor, himself, can’t—under any circumstances— be disabled in real life. Because that would be stupid.
I thought the movie was fairly decent up until the end… when a brief scene actually made me yell aloud in disbelief: “As if!”
While at a lecture to receive an award for his many, many achievements, the filmmakers inserted a moment where Professor Hawking witnesses a student at the lecture dropping a pen. The writers have Hawking daydream that he can stand up out of his wheelchair and pick it up.
A man that thinks in fucking lightyears and units of measure that literally NO ONE ELSE UNDERSTANDS is going to pause while receiving an award, to muse, “Gee. Screw science and my accomplishments. If only I could pick up this pen…”
I call bullshit.
But, you see, that’s what society would believe that he’d be thinking. Because to be seriously disabled is so scary to most people that they can’t even fathom it. To someone able-bodied, of course, Hawking would yearn to pick up that pen. But, in reality, he probably was thinking nothing of the kind.
As someone disabled, I can honestly say I’ve never seen someone drop a pen, and then lament, “Gosh, my life would have SO much more meaning if I could pick up that pen off the floor.”
Anyway, I seem to have digressed.
In the days since Professor Hawking’s passing, the internet has been awash with obituaries and tributes to him. His scientific achievements merit such accolades, that’s without question. While many of these tributes are extremely well-meaning, they miss a key element of the man that was Stephen Hawking…
He achieved everything he did with his disability, not despite it.
Stephen Hawking didn’t overcome his disability. He lived with it— achieving great things in the process. His infamous wheelchair wasn’t a trap, or a road block… it was a vital tool of life.
I’ve seen several cartoons and graphics circling the internet this week, showing Hawking drifting out of his wheelchair to stand and walk among the stars. Implying freedom. That he’s free from his wheelchair now. Free from the bounds of his disability.
Many seem to find this touching. Which is why these images have been shared thousands of times. But, when I see that, it makes my gut clench.
No matter how much Stephen Hawking had accomplished in his life, his story wasn’t complete without this magical metamorphosis. Floating free from his bonds to stand upright. To walk among the cosmos on two working legs. Because, heaven forbid anyone drive a wheelchair through the stars, instead.
While I’m not anywhere close to Hawking’s genius and epic achievements (by lightyears), as a disabled person, I’ve got a few things in common with him. His passing, and the response to it, has made me reflect upon what others may think about me.
When I die, will people think that I’m free? That I no longer have my wheelchair and disability to bind me?… burden me?… hold me back? Has my life boiled down to that?
I can say one thing for certain. If you draw a cartoon tribute of me floating out of my wheelchair after I die… or say that I’m “free now”… I will personally haunt you until the end of your able-bodied days. Not a cute haunting, either. A really annoying one where you hear whispers of “Fuck you” whilst you drift off to sleep. You’ll also never find your favorite pair of socks and your coffeemaker will always seem to malfunction when you are tired and/or hungover.
You will RUE. THE. DAY.
In fact, if it were theoretically possible, I’d come back to life, like Jesus Christ, just so that I might run you over with my wheelchair. Yes, I would definitely do that. Resurrection is a small price to pay for revenge.
So, your best bet? Don’t be comforted by thoughts that I’m “free.” Rather, please be sad that I’m dead. Okay?
Something tells me that Stephen Hawking would agree with me.
(photo via NASA)
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