March 14th comes as a crushing blow to just about everyone; the passing of Stephen Hawking. March 14th signified the loss of one of the world’s greatest intellectuals. The world lost a professor, cosmologist, theoretical physicist, and so much more. But it also lost someone who was, for so many, the first representation of a renowned intellectual with a disability. For folks with disability, he proved that we could achieve great heights too, that we could do all that with our disability, and not in spite of it. And for people with disability, March 14th came as a blow as media turned to report on Hawking’s death with an alarming amount of ableism – showcasing just how uncomfortable able-bodied folks are when celebrating and discussing disabled folks.
It speaks volumes to me about the hegemony of media when I scroll down my newsfeed and watch my able-bodied friends share articles and mourn using language that proves the staggering domination of able-bodied folks in the media. One quick Google search on Hawking’s death reveals article after article detailing how “good” it must be to not be living in his disabled body anymore, how he changed the world “despite” his disability.
Actress Mayim Bialik’s tweet “[Stephen Hawking] is free from the physical constraints of this earthly condition we all exist in” is ableist firstly because it diminishes his whole life and all his achievements to his disability. Secondly, the implication that he was restricted and constrained by his disability – just because you may not understand it or how someone can live with it – is outright insulting. Hawking himself said, “my disabilities have not been a significant handicap in my field, which is theoretical physics. Indeed, they have helped me in a way by shielding me from lecturing and administrative work that I would otherwise have been involved in.”
Sentiments expressing Hawking’s “happy” escape from his disabled body are incredibly damaging to disabled folks; it tells us we should be happy to, like him, be “free” from our bodies. As a Deaf person using a hearing aid and a Cochlear Implant, I experience the flipside of the hypervisibility of the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Hawking lived with. I pass through the world mostly undetectable as a person with disability despite my slight accent. But while Hawking is being celebrated for being “free” of his body, I am constantly complimented for appearing “free” of my own. How, you may ask? It’s as simple as saying, “I never would’ve guessed you were Deaf!” or, “you speak so well for a Deaf person!” Both erase my disability, and consequently all my advocacy efforts – my battles for equal rights and accessibility in every aspect of life. “They meant it as a compliment!” you might say. In which case let’s unpack that, Becky – let’s talk about what you expect a disabled person to look like. And why you think it’s a good thing that I don’t match that, that we don’t look disabled? Our society is so uncomfortable in dealing with disability that, rather than celebrating Hawking just as he was, people feel the need to preface by saying he was an inspiration for “[overcoming] a debilitating disease” as if an inquisitive mind like his wouldn’t find a way to change the world, disability or no. He managed his disability, and lived as fully and productively as he wanted to.
As Twitter user Diana Crow said, “We really need to stop referring to disability and success/achievement as if they’re somehow diametrically opposed. “ So, if you’re able-bodied, have a good think about the words you’re using to describe Stephen Hawking’s death, and on that note, anyone with a disability.