Archive for March, 2018

On Hawking, the Walkout, and Words

Sunday, March 18th, 2018

Dr. Stephen Hawking, a professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge, delivers a speech entitled "Why we should go into space" during a lecture that is part of a series honoring NASA's 50th Anniversary, Monday, April 21, 2008, at George Washington University's Morton Auditorium in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Paul. E. Alers)

I awoke on Wednesday to the news of Stephen Hawking’s passing. I immediately wanted to add my voice to the chorus on social media celebrating his life. But language stopped me. My first thought was, “Our world has lost one of its greatest minds.” That is an acceptable thing to say about someone who is able-bodied. But to refer to someone who is disabled as “a mind” makes their body invisible, and promotes ableism. I would have to reframe my thoughts. Also I wanted to link to an article from a reputable news source. The first site I visited said that Hawking “suffered” from ALS. To assume someone with a disability “suffers” is ableist. Just like using the phrase “confined to a wheelchair.” My child has a neuromuscular condition, and gets around in a power wheelchair. If you have spent time with him, you know he does not suffer. Nor does he feel confined. These are assumptions made about the disabled from the outside.

I forget these are things I didn’t use to know. Things that I need to say because other people do not know them yet, and it is important. The language we use to describe one another matters. Especially when it is the privileged using language to describe someone who is part of a marginalized community.

I skimmed articles from three or four other news sources and was thrilled that “suffered” only appeared in one. And nowhere did I see the word “confined.” This is progress. Some of the stories did seem to think that part of Hawking’s legacy included the Academy Award given to an able-bodied actor for portraying Hawking in a film. And here we come to another problem. “Why?” you might be asking. Why is it a problem that an able-bodied person plays a person with a disability? You think to yourself, Well, Eddie Redmayne did do a very good job. And so I ask you this: when was the last time you saw a disabled actor play an able-bodied character in a major motion picture or on network television? You’re stumped, right? So, if actors with disabilities can’t play people without disabilities, and they can’t even play people with disabilities, then what work are actors with disabilities getting? That’s a problem.

There were plenty of other concerning posts and news stories, some suggesting that he was brilliant in spite of his disability, that it was miraculous that he had a sense of humor and a zest for life considering his circumstances. One illustration showed his empty wheelchair with communication device parked amidst the stars and an unrecognizable silhouette of a man walking out into the cosmos. As if he is now free, fixed. Folks let’s face it, there was nothing broken about Stephen Hawking.

So what is it that made Stephen Hawking stand out? Why did he have such an impact? Sure, he was a brilliant scientist. He made revolutionary predictions and discoveries about black holes—in fact that they are not entirely black—that they emit radiation. This was revolutionary in physics. But it’s more than that. It’s that he brought science to the people, made it more approachable. And perhaps he did the same for disability—in being this iconic figure who also used a wheelchair and a communication device.

Something else significant happened on Wednesday, hundreds of thousands of students across the country walked out of their schools to protest gun violence. This was the largest student protest in this country since the Vietnam War protests in the 1960’s. It feels significant to me that these two events coincided. The passing of this brilliant and important human, and children and teens banding together to have their voices heard. The past gives way to the future. Stephen Hawking began his important work as a very young man. History shows that youth are the future, that youth make waves and make way for the future. 

As far as I know, nine-year old Oscar does not know about the walkouts, does not know about the March for Our Lives scheduled for March 24. People who know we have attended some marches in the past year have asked if we are attending. I don’t want my child to have to know that children have been gunned down again and again and again in their schools over the last handful of years. I don’t want my child to be afraid. His school practices lockdown drills in case “bad guys” get in, and that hypothetical is enough.

Oscar has said several times in the last few months, “We’ve been to a women’s march, we’ve been to a science march, we’ve been to a climate march, and we’ve been to a race march. When are we going to go to a disability march?” He says, “It’s my kind our president makes fun of. I want to go to a disability march.”

I saw posts from friends with disabilities on Facebook indicating what a role model Stephen Hawking had been to them as children, because he was the first famous person with a disability in the public eye they could really look up to. Could see themselves represented in. Another news story suggested he was as brilliant as he was because of his disability. That he had to do things differently than others—he couldn’t write his theories and equations on a chalkboard like his peers, which enabled him to think in a completely different way.

Maybe there is no relationship between Stephen Hawking’s passing and the student walk-out. Maybe they are just two random events that happened on the same day, that both occupied space in my head and heart that day. But they are now tied together in my memory.

I leave you with Stephen Hawking’s words:

“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”