Inspiration, Stephen Hawking, and ‘that’ Picture

Featured image is Mitchell Toy’s drawing of a man (presumably Stephen Hawking), walking away from a wheelchair and off into the cosmos…

With the death of Stephen Hawking a few days ago some very predictable things have happened.  The inspiration pornographers have been hard at work, Hawking’s opposition to the healthcare and welfare policies of the current government have been delicately ignored, and the disability community has given itself another aneurysm over whether or not certain things are ableist.

First, the whole icky matter of whether Hawking was an inspiration.  Utter the word ‘inspiration’ to most disabled people, and you’ll probably get some kind of metaphorical gag reflex from your audience.  Of course, Hawking’s inspiring nature (if such it be) was in large part down to his accomplishments whilst living with a disability.  This has led to the cry from many that we should stop labelling him as inspirational because it simply serves the idea that disabled people are inspirational simply for achieving anything at all.  But this has to be balanced with the fact that Hawking was one of the few publicly visible disabled people of the last three or four decades.  If you grow up disabled, it does help to some degree, to see people in wheelchairs or with similar conditions to yourself, accomplishing great things.  Some call it being a role model, some label it inspiration – either way the whole question is vexed, because do disabled people always want to be defined by their conditions?  And equally, do they see themselves as disabled first?  One of the reasons I had no real disabled role models growing up, was not so much a lack of visibility – though that did play into it – but that I never saw my disability as a defining factor.  I was more concerned with my involvement in music, sports, theatre and being among my peers, rather than looking for other people on wheels.

There is always a lot of pushback from the disability community (if that’s even a thing), when someone with disability is called inspiring.  That is understandable, but these days I pause before going into full harangue.  Because I want to know why someone finds a thing inspiring.  A lot of calling disabled people inspiring, comes not from a place of toxicity, but a place of non-thought.  If you have a disability, and are stopped by someone to tell you that you’ve brightened their day by existing – challenge them on it.  It’s fun, the looks of perplexity and confusion are a joy.  We cannot stop people taking inspiration but we may be able at least, to help them take it from better sources.

Inspiration of course was not the only cause of consternation.  There were the memes and pictures that one simply knew Twitter was going to shit out at a moment’s notice.  There are plenty of toxic things out there and I’m sure many more to come – but I’d like to offer a note of caution…

Chief among them is the picture featured above.  It seems to have been the picture or comment above all others to have touched a nerve and upset people – I think we could do with adding some caution to that offense, but I want to say at the outset that I can see why people find it so galling.  I just want to illustrate why I don’t find it as problematic as many…

One can always rely on HuffPost to provide you with (often sanctimonious) commentary on what is ableist and what isn’t.  Sometimes I agree, others I don’t, but in this article Will Pike sums up what I think of as the orthodox, social model position.  First, Pike concedes that, “Okay, it may not be harmful per se, but it’s deeply problematic.”  Now I’ll credit him here with not making the claim I’ve seen some make that the image is inherently harmful.  Many in the disabled community seem to have no shades of nuance in their offense-taking, all ableist material is given equal time and equal vent.  I’d like to see that change, for example, I think that John Humphrys’ bilge-filled inanity was worth far more disdain than this picture.  Pike continues “The most obvious point to make, is that for us wheelchair users who have not been blessed by death, it is offensive.” – and this is where it gets difficult.  It has offended many, but to speak of all disabled people or all wheelchair users as if we were some sort of monolithic entity all thinking the same way is entirely wrong.  I am a wheelchair user.  I did not find it offensive.  Pike then asserts that “It is also damaging to suggest that a wheelchair is some sort of mobile prison.”  This may be so, but for me the image does not go there.  There is unquestionably, an inbuilt societal assumption that wheelchairs are some kind of confinement which is of course nonsensical.  Wheelchairs give greater scope for independence, autonomy, socialisation, work and all sorts of other things.  They also allow you to skip queues in many theme parks, and with practice, to automatically embellish your dance moves.  Wheelchairs are a positive thing for disabled people.  That must be made clear.

Pike finishes of this line of thought with the following: “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.”.

Now, I know that this is an image that is insidious in our culture.  And for that reason many disabled people will push back against it very strongly.  They’ll point out the gaping flaws in the medical model of disability, and point out that a social model perspective where a disability is defined not by a broken body, but by a broken society – is the right way to view things.  And this has much to be said for it.  If nothing else, it turns the expected power dynamic on its head and gives voice and agency to millions.  But this pushback sometimes reaches levels where it feels like it’s time to break out the torches and pitchforks.  These are the people I think of as the social model purists.  Matthew Cortland in this excellent twitter thread calls them social model absolutists.  And theirs are the loudest voices when it comes to the disability response.  Now sometimes that’s what’s needed, matters of accessibility, equality, glass cellings and similar all call for strong reliance on the social model, but there are parts of the model that could do with expanding.  As I have written before, the social model does nothing to address impairment or the negative and adverse effects of disability once barriers are removed.  I can have all the access in the world, I will still have pain, fatigue and physical limitations.  And I’ll still have negative emotions about that.  And we should not have to be shy about that because of louder voices.  Voices that accuse you of somehow being ‘off message’ and presenting a negative view.  Voices that inadvertently play into the narrative of ‘the only disability is a bad attitude’.  My body is flawed.  Sometimes Mr. Pike, I am unhappy, I do feel unfulfilled, sometimes I do dream of a life without disability.  And I see nothing wrong with that.

I understand that is unattainable, but while that sometimes helps, it doesn’t negate that feeling entirely.  If I were in the position of Hawking in the cartoon – I’d get up and walk away too.  And I do not feel that this is an inherently ableist point of view.  I accept my disability because I have no other option.  But I choose to live honestly with disability, and frankly some parts of it are shit.  If we as disabled people are going to be truly understood, then we should not just show our strengths but also our vulnerabilities.  I know the automatic response will be that ableds are already looking for them, but I contend that the problem is that they’re almost always looking for them in the wrong place.  Being open about disability is not a simple matter of presenting oneself as if disability is a negligible life matter.  But a matter of showing the full range.  Of course we want people to see the person not the disability.  But hold that thought.  We wouldn’t say we want to see the person not the sexuality/race/gender/age…Yes those things shouldn’t matter in terms of prejudice, everyone should be treated with equal humanity.  But disability does not have to be swept under the carpet.

I am disabled.  I am a  disabled person.  Sometimes it’s great.  Sometimes it’s not.  Sometimes it’s even more complicated.  And that is OK.  Let’s see more variety in our disability dialogue, or we risk going from the monolithic medical model, to an equally toxic version of the social model that serves us just as badly.


2 thoughts on “Inspiration, Stephen Hawking, and ‘that’ Picture

  1. Some men, women, children, disabled people, LGBT people etc are inspirational. Some people who overcame enormous odds to change the world for the better (e.g., maybe, Scott of the Antarctic, Jesus, Mother Theresa, Hawking) are inspirational. Some inspirational people are evil or at least deeply flawed (e.g. Hitler, Mandela, Churchill). Some inspirational people are hugely talented but lack interpersonal skills (e.g. Beethoven, Cezanne, Picasso). It is an occasional attribute of a few inspirational people that they are disabled, but not at all a necessary condition. Where does this connection of disability and inspiration come from except from a lamentable lack of linguistic precision in our education system? Bring in compulsory Philosophy/Thinking skills in all schools now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The short answer in my view, people’s lowered expectations of those with disabilities, leads to anyone exceeding said expectations being automatically seen as inspirational.


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