Today, one of the greatest minds of our time died. Professor Stephen Hawking has passed away at the age of 76, having been given only 2 years to live when he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease over half a century ago. Unsurprisingly, it was the fact that he lived with this disease and disability that was the core of his image in the public mind. And that’s completely understandable and in many ways forgiveable – it’s an incredible story. I hate to use the phrase ‘against the odds’ because it is one of the stereotypes that serves inspiration pornographers so well, but having that diagnosis and outlook fifty years ago is a very different beast to what it would be today, and that should be acknowledged. Ultimately, it will be Hawking’s contributions to theoretical physics that will survive the erosions of history, the further in to the future that the biographies are written, the less importance the disability will take – and that’s as it should be.
Sadly, we’re a long way from those glorious days. Which is why it was such an unsurprising disappointment to listen to John Humphrys this morning. Actually I didn’t listen to Humphreys this morning, his mere presence on Today is one of the reasons I find the programme often unlistenable and cringeworthy, but having logged on to Twitter and seen assorted reactions of outrage and incredulity I decided that I ought to listen to the interview in question in order to try and be fair…Mr. Humphreys, I would like those few minutes back please!
The first big winceworthy highlight that hit me, was when Carlos Frenk of Durham University, asserted that Hawking’s disability altered the way that he wrote and went about his work. This would surely seem to anyone to be non-controversial, but not to Humphrys who seemed shocked by the idea – yes John, it’s almost as if disability has a profound effect on how someone lives their life. This is a beautiful example of how so many misinformed people hold notions of disability as the ‘other’ in society, but are still surprised when the people they have ‘othered’ might need some form of adaptation or support in order to meet a societal ‘norm’. It also made me wonder if the surprise from Humphrys comes from the fact that Hawking was successful. The narrative is so much around ‘overcoming’ disability, that I wonder if some people assume that once you reach a certain level of eminence and autonomy, that disability becomes a non-factor. Newsflash, it does not.
From there we went to more familiar ableist tropes. Hawking, according to Humphrys “fought through it” despite being “desperately disabled”. As I’ve said, the focus on the disability is understandable, but people must realise that this piss-poor pity-party rhetoric on being disabled is the only narrative that ever makes it to the mainstream media. I will not go so far as some social model absolutists (not my term and I’ll give credit in my next article) who say that his disability was of no consequence – but it is being dramatically overplayed. And overplayed in a sickly, saccharine vomit-making way. Brace yourselves fellow disableds, the internet is about to drown you in inspiration porn…how do you manage to do it!? Poor inspirational you!
It was then that Humphrys applied his coup de grace. He asked professor Brian Cox if Hawking was ever “cut any slack” because of his disability.
This is an immediate contender for stupidest question of the year – and that is already a strong field. Seriously, what does that even mean? That Hawking only got where he was because of his disability? It’s the craziest argument of positive discrimination you will hear maybe ever! Or does it mean that scientists, with their well-known strong aversion to evidence-based practice, took Hawking at his word because they didn’t want to be accused of ableism? It’s this kind of unthinking, incoherent and frankly banal question which drives disabled people absolutely crazy. It’s one that’s asked with no thought of what a positive answer would mean, and what does ‘cutting some slack’ mean anyhow!? How does one get given slack in the fields of cosmology and theoretical physics? And how does that jive with the idea of Hawking ‘overcoming’ anything! Are we then to believe that he was given a leg up because of his disability? Never mind the fact that he’d already got an Oxbridge degree by the time of his diagnosis! Answers on a postcard please, address to ‘Disabled of West Midlands’.
I am not calling for the removal of disability form Hawking’s story and obituaries in it’s entirety. I will be writing a piece on the disability community’s response very soon – because I think those pesky social model absolutists are doing too much shouting and not enough thinking…but I do have some sympathy for them. Because so much of the anger comes from the fact that Humphrys’ confused combination of shaming, incoherence, misinformation and the worst forms of sympathy – is the only narrative that ever makes it to air. And for many people, they have simply had enough. Unfortunately, the internet’s open sewer of ableism, inspiration pornography and shaming has already gone into action – and so the rage response is (justifiably) there.
Farewell Stephen Hawking. Thank you for your work on understanding our universe. Thank you for being an inspiration to many disabled people. Thank you for not letting disability be either the whole story, or of no consequence. Thank you for being you.