In the wake of Professor Stephen Hawking’s death, I saw an obituary piece from the Los Angeles Times that blew my mind. Not because it expanded upon Hawking’s scientific theories, but because it described him as a “British physicist whose body was chained to a wheelchair”.
To a wheelchair?
Are you kidding me!
I shouldn’t be too surprised though. While scrolling through Twitter, it’s not long before you stumble across a number of images that depict an able-bodied Professor Hawking, free of his wheelchair, rid of his disability, walking into the heavens. I can assure you, without an atom of doubt, that the people who generate and retweet these pictures are themselves able-bodied.
But what’s the problem here? Surely it’s just a bit of harmless fantasy?
Okay, it may not be harmful per se, but it’s deeply problematic. The most obvious point to make, is that for us wheelchair users who have not been blessed by death, it is offensive. Can you really imagine someone presenting Stephen Hawking with one of these images when he was still alive? It is also damaging to suggest that a wheelchair is some sort of mobile prison. On the contrary, for many wheelchair users the wheelchair is a liberator. Yes, it might serve as a symbol of disability, but the wheelchair itself is not debilitating.
Above all though, it is affirmation that the medical model of disability presides over the perception of disabled people: We are unhappy. We are unfulfilled. We are constantly dreaming of a life without disability. We need to be fixed.
It is this pity-fuelled mindset that is debilitating. For me, living with a disability is about acceptance. I accept that I am living with the material reality of a body that has been injured. But, I do not accept that my life isn’t worth living. I accept that I might not be able to do everything an able-bodied person might be able to do. But I certainly don’t need an able-bodied person to remind me of this, or imply that my life is shit because of it.
The fact that Stephen Hawking developed motor neurone disease was something that he may have personally lamented. I certainly had to do a lot work in accepting my own paraplegia, and continue to do so. But what I and, presumably, Stephen Hawking would really appreciate is for society to come to terms with disability. To do this, society must demonstrate that it doesn’t view disabled people as second-class citizens whose sole ambition is to not be disabled. Instead, it should realise that, as human beings, we all contribute to the Universe in our own inimitable way; bound, not by physical limitations, but the scope of our imagination.
Stephen Hawking is a role model for many reasons. Some of which he may never have intended. But if he is to be honoured after death, he should not be re-imagined to accommodate society’s dim view of disability. He should be revered because of society’s dim view of disability.