Jason's View

How Should We View Stephen Hawking?

15 Jan 2015 by Jason Harris
Stephen Hawking in 2006

Stephen Hawking is probably the best-known scientist of our era and maybe even the greatest scientist who ever existed. He has come up with some of the most revolutionary ideas that have advanced our knowledge, but these ideas are also easily accessible to laypeople in his books, like A Brief History of Time.

What there is no doubt about is that Stephen Hawking is the most famous person with a disability. This has brought some interesting aspects into his life that we will discuss here.

What most people do not know is that Stephen Hawking was physically able until his mid-20s when he found out he had motor neuron disease, also known as ALS. Two main questions arise from this: Would Stephen Hawking’s life be different if he had gotten this disability earlier in his life? And, did Stephen Hawking become more famous because he has a disability?

As I said before, Professor Hawking was in his early 20s before any sign of motor neuron disease showed up. When he was diagnosed (shortly after his 21st birthday, in 1963), he was just starting to have a bit of trouble walking—he was tripping a lot. However, from these minor symptoms came a prognosis that was grim: His condition was supposed to deteriorate rapidly, giving him only two or three years to live. But incredibly, his degeneration slowed down. He did not lose his ability to talk until the 1970s, and by then he was already a full-time professor.

Would Stephen Hawking’s life be different if he had gotten this disability earlier in his life? And, did Stephen Hawking become more famous because he has a disability?

While his body has been degrading his mind will always stay intact. This presents the question: If Hawking was disabled earlier in life, especially with the lack of being able to speak, would he still be as well-known for science or even known at all? Most people who are unable to talk are generally not seen as very intelligent. But that is not always the case; many people on the autism spectrum who cannot talk still have a high level of understanding.

If Hawking was disabled earlier in life, especially with the lack of being able to speak, would he still be as well-known for science or even known at all?

Hawking was lucky enough to be able to afford pricey technology that has been custom-made for him. Along with this technology, he has many people to assist him physically and with organization. In his professional life, like most scientists, he works on a team. To be fair though, Professor Hawking has stated that before getting motor neuron disease he was not the most dedicated student. He said at Cambridge he said he spent 1 hour a week studying. This was not uncommon though at Cambridge. He did become a harder worker after getting diagnosed; as some of his friends say, cosmology was his refuge.

The other question that Stephen Hawking presents is: Do people know him more for his science or his disability? There are a ton of people who know Stephen Hawking’s theories on black holes, and the expansion of the universe. No other scientist’s statements about anything garner more attention than Hawking’s, and no other scientist’s personal life is under a microscope nearly as much. What scientist has a movie, even a couple of movies, made about them during their own lifetime? His divorces from both of his wives were highly followed in the press. In some ways he is treated more like a celebrity than a scientist. He should indeed be valued as an amazing inspiration of a person who overcame so many odds, but he should not be forgotten as a great scientist.

He should indeed be valued as an amazing inspiration of a person who overcame so many odds, but he should not be forgotten as a great scientist.

This leads us to a final question: In looking at ourselves and our society, are there other people with disabilities or who come from low-income or other backgrounds that we marginalize? If we dropped the stigma and gave people a chance, would they be able to productively contribute to society? And like Professor Hawking, does giving them a chance mean giving people the support they need to be able to thrive? Even if their contribution is not at the level of Stephen Hawking’s, don’t they deserve that chance? Conversely, might some of the people we value be valued for the wrong reasons? I think looking at Professor Hawking can provide a window into how we relate to others—those who could be considered less valuable, and those we already do value.


Jason Harris

Founder of Jason’s Connection – an online resource for those with disabilities, mental health, aging and other needs. Jason was awarded an M.S. in Cultural Foundations of Education and Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies from Syracuse University.  Jason is also a Project Coordinator and Research Associate at the Burton Blatt Institute, an international think tank for Disability Rights and Human Justice at Syracuse University.  He regularly contributes to the blog in his own series called Jason’s View and travels the country consulting and speaking about disability issues and rights. To read more from Jason Harris, read Jason's View