Response to Hawking’s death highlights issues with public perception of disabled individuals

Stephen Hawking (pictured above) in a zero gravity plane in 2007. Hawking was an inspiration to all and should not be simply defined as someone with a disability. The inappropriate reactions after his death indicate the need for greater respect and sensitivity.(jim campbell/creative commons)

British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking passed away on March 14. Hawking’s achievements throughout his life were limitless, yet obituaries presented by major news corporations wrongly presented his disability as something that, in his passing, he became free of. 

Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS, at 21 years old, according to the Huffington Post. He was initially given two years to live, but lived to 76. His disability, however, should not be presented as something abnormal that would, prevent him from achieving.

After his passing, reports from ableist standpoints focusing on how Hawking “overcame” or “conquered” his disability flooded popular media outlets. Fox News reported, “[Hawking was] paralyzed but [made] constant contributions.” In their obituary for the physicist, NBC said that his wheelchair “didn’t keep him from living a full life.” The Los Angeles Times even went as far as to report, in an obituary, that he was “chained to a wheelchair This mentality is not only wrong, but also incredibly detrimental to society as a whole. Guest writer at The Huffington Post Ace Ratcliff reported that this way of thinking plays into “repetitive and inaccurate tropes that describe disability as something that stifles innovation, something that cannot exist beside great intellect, something that staunches creativity.”

In addition to insensitive news articles mistakenly reporting Hawking’s passing as something “freeing” to him as a disabled person, artwork began popping up on the internet showing him walking into the distance, his wheelchair abandoned behind him.

Artist Mitchell Toy released a cartoon on Twitter depicting Hawking’s silhouette standing up in front of the Cosmos. Another artist, Ia Wun Hsu, drew Hawking being “lifted from his chair and swallowed by a black hole,” according to the Huffington Post.

These types of images are upsetting to see because they depict Hawking’s disability negatively, and something that he would no longer have to be confined by after death. They reiterate the misinformed idea that one cannot produce innovative work if they have a disability.

“Perpetually describing disability as negative by default instead of as a normal or neutral form of variation means it becomes something to be eradicated, fixed, removed,” Ratcliff wrote in The Huffington Post.

Despite Hawking’s short life expectancy, he obtained his doctorate and became the Lucasian professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge, a position held by Isaac Newton 300 years prior, according to The Washington Post

His discoveries on black holes, entropy and the radiation emitted from black holes were groundbreaking. He published endless popular writings, both fiction and nonfiction, and was able to make physics not only more interesting, but more understandable to the general public. 

To say Hawking “overcame” his disability, or to attribute his successes to anything but his pure brainpower, is shameful. 

Hawking’s revolutionary findings on how the universe works were achieved not in spite of or by overcoming his disability, but rather as a disabled individual. When looking at Hawking’s life, as well as the lives of other disabled individuals, it is crucial to remember that humans exist in innumerable ways.