“Did the science community cut him a lot of slack because he was so desperately disabled?” John Humphrys asked a shocked Professor Brian Cox during BBC Radio 4’s tribute to Stephen Hawking on Wednesday.
Cox rightly gave an emphatic “no” (though resisted asking whether Humphrys – usually famed for his sexist interviews – has been “cut a lot slack” by the BBC for being so “desperately” out of touch). That Humphrys chose to mark the death of Stephen Hawking – arguably one of the greatest scientists of the modern age – by questioning, a few hours later, whether his remarkable legacy was actually all a sham “because you all felt sorry for him” is, at best, poor taste, and at worst, appallingly ignorant. But flick through the coverage of Stephen Hawking’s death over the last 24 hours, and Humphrys is far from alone in his attitude to disability.
This morning, the Daily Mail’s front page is emblazoned with a black-and-white picture of Hawking as a child – decades before he would contract motor-neurone disease or start his groundbreaking work. The headline recounts how the physicist was “glowing with health as a boy”, before defying “crippling illness”. The life of a world-renowned scientist is reduced to the fact he at least used to be healthy. The message is clear: he was once “normal” and it’s a tragedy that such an intelligent person was “crippled” by disability.
Meanwhile, social media has been full of similarly regressive tributes. One cartoonist’s image depicting Hawking standing in heaven next to his wheelchair went viral (it had been shared or liked over 40,000 times at last look). Sky News immediately asked for permission to broadcast it and many (presumably non-disabled) social-media users praised it as “beautiful”. But, however well intentioned, this image speaks to worrying myths around disability: that wheelchairs are restrictive prisons that disabled people long to escape and that, particularly grimly, Hawking is finally “free” of his wheelchair upon death. In fact, a wheelchair – much like his voice synthesiser – by all accounts gave Hawking the freedom to live with a disability, enabling him to travel the world, have a family and contribute to the scientific community. That Hawking didn’t actually believe in heaven is an added hitch.
To much of the media and public, a remarkable life – genius, wit and kindness – is reduced to their own flawed view of disability
Others didn’t even have the excuse of being well intentioned. “You know the ones that bleat and whine on Twitter that they can't work as they're 'disabled' with anxiety, agoraphobia, fibro' and a poorly toe and it's all the Govt's fault etc etc?”, wrote one Twitter user. “Stephen Hawking had three jobs.” In life, Hawking was often used as a stick to beat other disabled people with – that if he could succeed, anyone surely could. (You only have to Google “Stephen Hawking” and “motivation” to be flooded with inspirational memes using his image and quotes such as “the only disability in life is a bad attitude!”) It’s classic shaming of disabled people who are too ill to work – a trope that ignores that Hawking had the education and wealth to be able to continue working while disabled (with the aid of expensive technology and personal assistants), or the fact that clearly not all sickness or disability is the same.
As much of a constant as the media’s sexist reaction to a woman’s life, disabled people are all-too familiar with this sort of disablist coverage – language and images that, for example, paint a disabled person’s life as tragic and pitiable or as a burden on society. We see it with anyone from Paralympians – so often fetishised as “inspirational” rather than simply athletes, or with coverage fixated on how they became disabled – to disabled benefit claimants vilified by the press for needing state support. That even someone like Hawking – a rare example of an influential disabled person respected by world leaders, celebrities and academics alike – hasn’t escaped this feels particularly troubling. As if even someone of Hawking’s stature can be victim to clichés and negative stereotypes. To much of the media and public, a remarkable life – genius, wit and kindness – is reduced to their own flawed view of disability: an all-consuming tragedy that takes a fully-fledged human being and turns them into an object to pity.
In his life, Hawking displayed how passion, talent and empathy can create awe-inspiring wonder. But in his death, the media has shown how widespread prejudice against disabled people in Britain still is, and how much further there is to go.