It is with deep sadness that I report that Stephen Hawking has died. He was among my favorite people in the world. I didn’t know him–and I don’t know what his thoughts on disability and illness, which I’m sure were better than mine. But It is because I loved him that I want to salvage his memory from abelist and capitalist narratives.
As reports come in on his death, I keep seeing that he “overcame his disability,” did things “despite his disability,” and so on. It’s a fine line we have to walk here. We, of course, need to take into account disability and illness for many reasons, including medical reasons and reasons of justice. However, what we don’t want to do is reduce a person to their illness or disability. That’s the first point.
The second point has to do with capitalist narratives: If Stephen Hawking can do it with his disability, you and I can do it, too. That’s both dangerous and plays into the capitalist bootstrap notion.
The fact is illness and disability are common. You will, more than likely, experience one at some point. What’s uncommon is for a person with a severe illness or disability to rise above–not in a capitalist way, but in a social and intellectual way. We know, for example, that people with disabilities and illnesses are discriminated against, especially if they are ones that carry a certain stigma or degree of severity, including in academia.
Let Stephen Hawking give you hope. But don’t let that hope ride on the fact that he had a disability. Don’t make him into “disability porn.”
What you can do is see him as a person with extraordinary gifts who happened to have an illness. That is, in the end, what he was.