Remembering Stephen Hawking’s legacy

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Stephen Hawking, arguably the greatest — and definitely the most well-known — contemporary physicist, died on March 14, 2018.

He died at the age of 76, which is quite an achievement for someone who was given just a few months to live at 21.

Stephen Hawking was justifiably famous for two things.

He was a genius physicist and having a motor neuron disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Although he was arguably the most well-known disabled scholar of his time and perhaps ever, Hawking was always hesitant to accept the mantle of a disability activist.

This is because he wanted to be known as “a scientist first, popular science writer second and, in all the ways that matter, a normal human being with the same desires, drives, dreams and ambitions as the next person.”

The fact that Hawking believed that talking about his personal challenges, or advocating for people with disabilities, would cause people to stop seeing him as a scientist, or even as a whole person, is a terrible thing.

Viewing disability and achievement, academic or otherwise, as a dichotomy not only perpetuates harmful stereotypes, it silences people like Hawking.

Someone with the power to create meaningful change within the system from speaking out, for fear of being difficult to work with, being viewed as a complainer, etc.

He did eventually accept this mantle when he was confined to a wheelchair, which made it impossible for him to enter Cambridge University. The university briefly refused to provide the funds to build the ramp he would need.

Even today when people pride themselves on tolerance, is that you can either do something well or you can’t do it at all.

The fact that Cambridge University would refuse to provide an accommodation to one of its most brilliant and well-known minds in order to save on renovation costs, shows how much work has been done.

It also shows how much work still needs to be done with regards to accessibility.

Recent protests and political movements have shown the world that this is not a time for silence. It is not a time to bow our heads and quietly tolerate injustice.

The turnout at the Women’s Marches, the success of Black Lives Matter and the ever-expanding Pride Parades prove that we as a people are willing to stand up for those of us who are marginalized.    The one key group, however, that we have left out the discussion this far are people with disabilities.

More than 30 percent of Canadians are currently living with some form of disability, according to Statistics Canada.

That number is also projected to rise steadily as the population ages.

That is a significant number of people, enough that most  should directly know someone with a disability of some sort.
   So why, in this era of activism, have these people still been left on the sidelines?

I believe that the perceived dichotomy of disability and ability is a huge contributing factor to this marginalization. There is a prevailing and problematic belief in society.

Even today when people pride themselves on tolerance, is that you can either do something well or you can’t do it at all.

Accommodations don’t factor into these conversations because they aren’t cost effective.

Then the question remains, why hire a person who can do the job with aids if you can hire someone who can do the job without them?

Well, would you have hired Stephen Hawking?

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