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How I saw Stephen Hawking's death as a disabled person


jiski

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Stephen Hawking was a renowned scientist famed for his work on black holes and relativity.

 

He published several popular science books such as A Brief History of Time.

 

Professor Hawking was also a wheelchair user who lived with motor neurone disease from the age of 21.

 

Yes, he was an award-winning scientist, but a lot of the coverage after Prof Hawking's death has created a narrative of an "inspirational" figure who was "crippled" by his condition and "confined to a wheelchair".

 

As a disabled person, I've found this discourse troubling and somewhat regressive.

I'm tired of being labelled an 'inspiration'

Stephen Hawking's death has reminded me why I'm tired, as a disabled person and a wheelchair user, of being labelled an inspiration just for living my everyday life.

 

Prof Hawking was an extraordinary scientist and an incredibly intelligent human being.

 

However, many disabled people, myself included, would take issue with calling him an "inspiration" as this term is often used in popular society to belittle disabled people's experiences.

 

I am fine with my friends and family members calling me "inspirational". However, I get labelled it by random strangers, who hardly know me and just see the wheelchair and my condition (cerebral palsy, which means I use a wheelchair), not the person.

 

People with disabilities are often framed as either inspirational (say, a Paralympic athlete) or scroungers (people to be cared for or, worse, demonised) by the media and on television screens.

 

Our everyday experiences are neither heroic nor those of scroungers: it's just life as we know it.

More role models, please

Kids in the playground of my Merseyside primary school would compare me, probably the only young wheelchair user they had encountered, with the "genius" that was Stephen Hawking.

 

This was not an entirely fair comparison, I must say.

 

To me what this showed, even from a young age, was that there was a lack of "people like me", disabled people in the public spotlight, people I could aspire to be like.

 

I can think of four or five disabled people who were in the public spotlight when I was growing up early part of the last decade: David Blunkett, the former Home Secretary who is blind, Stephen Hawking, and two Paralympic athletes, Tanni Grey-Thompson and Ade Adepitan.

 

Professor Stephen Hawking is pictured during a visit to Cape Finisterre, some 90 km from Santiago, northwestern Spain on 25 September 2008

Stephen Hawking lived with motor neurone disease from the age of 21.

 

Prof Hawking showed that, despite public perceptions of what a disabled person can do, people with disabilities can achieve amazing things.

 

Even today, there are still too few disabled people out there in the public eye on a daily basis who are relatable for ordinary disabled people growing up.

 

If you're a sporty individual, there are Paralympic and disability sport stars. However disability representation on screen in the media and in society as a whole is low, despite the fact that disabled people make up almost one in five of the population, according to the UK government's Family Resources Survey.

 

All too often, they are categorised using able-bodied people's terminology as "inspiring" or "confined to a wheelchair" by illness or otherwise - rather than language based on their own experiences.

Watch your words (and your memes)

An image by Australian artist, Mitchell Toy, of Stephen Hawking leaving his wheelchair posted to Twitter on 15 March 2018

An Australian artist, Mitchell Toy, posted an image of Stephen Hawking leaving his wheelchair, which some say is offensive

 

For me, the most troubling moment in the reaction to Prof Hawking's death was when an image of him standing out of his wheelchair went viral on social media.

 

What this image suggested was a rather damaging trope: the disabled person should always seek to not use a wheelchair, rather than the impairment being something positive to reflect and work with.

 

Society still seeks to create an image of a disabled person's life as pitiable or a burden on society. This can be incredibly damaging to a disabled person's mental health and their perception of themselves.

Class matters

One cannot ignore the role of class, race and gender privileges when it comes to disability as these are often intertwined.

Professor Hawking was first diagnosed with motor disease at the age of 21 and given a very short time to live.

 

However, prior to that, his experience had been one of an able-bodied upper middle-class male who studied at Oxford.

 

As my colleague Alex Taylor wrote for the New Statesman in 2014, Prof Hawking's social class and that he became disabled at 21 meant that he was afforded opportunities that would not have been given to a disabled person in his era who was born with their condition.

 

Often, the biggest barrier to a disabled person's advancement in society can be low expectations in the education system.

 

I grew up on Merseyside in northern England and went to a mainstream primary school and a comprehensive secondary school on a former council estate. I was sometimes advised to take "easier" subjects on account of my disability.

 

Fortunately, I persisted: I studied the subjects I wanted to. I went on to university and to get my dream job here at the BBC.

 

Only 44,250 of over 400,000 students declared a disability when starting their degree courses in 2015-16, the Higher Education Funding Council reported.

When you consider that there are 13.3m disabled people in the UK, that's a very low number.

 

Social class is still a significant contributor to determining the life chances of disabled people, something that Prof Hawking's death has brought home for me.

 

Source:  http://www.bbc.com/news/world-43418251

 

 

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A less patronizing word for the term "disabled" is "differently abled" — most surprising that someone who writes for BBC is unaware of this nomenclature.

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Speaking of inspiration, some drug addict dumb ass called lil peep ( which I never even heard of until recently) apparently inspired more people than the Professor Hawking. in a lot of social networks and stuff ive seen people changing their names to that idiot but none changed their names to Stephen Hawking. 

I'm not even surprised, the majority of society is just stupid.

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An example of the ‘’inspirational meme“  

 

her_disability_can_t_stop_her.jpg

 

I sent this meme (with good intentions) to @kasper , who is a wheel-chaired person himself . 

Reaction ?   He didn't feel inspired or pleased at all  !

So I agree, more  of our sensitivity is needed in this matter.

 

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43 minutes ago, dcs18 said:

A less patronizing word for the term "disabled" is "differently abled" — most surprising that someone who writes for BBC is unaware of this nomenclature.

Yes, one is in common use and till recently was not offensive.  The latter is politically correct (PC).  PC oftentimes has no feelings or fake feelings behind it.  It's like when politicians say, "our thoughts and prayers" go to the victims of this or that.

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How "Differently Abled" Marginalizes Disabled People 

 
Some people, including people who would conventionally be categorized as disabled, use phrases like "differently abled" to refer to disabled people. This phrase is used because it supposedly humanizes disabled people by focusing on our abilities rather than on our impairments. Those who prefer the phrase "differently abled" often see the terms "disabled" or "disability" as potentially hurtful or offensive. "Dis" means "not," so the argument goes, so calling someone "disabled" must mean that a person is "unable to do anything," "incapable of ever doing anything functional or useful or desirable either by others or by themselves," and therefore, it is wrong to call people disabled. 

Speaking from a purely objective standpoint, we as humans are all differently abled from one another. Some people are better at math than other people. Some people are better at public speaking than other people. Some people are better at cooking or even remembering to cook than other people. Some people walk and some do not, and of those people who do walk, not everyone walks in the same way. When referring to groups of people, there is nothing inaccurate with saying that within the group, each person is differently abled. This is true regardless of how many disabled people are in the group or if there are no disabled people in the group. 

The problem arises when the term "differently abled" is used to refer to an individual disabled person. 
 


Firstly, calling someone "differently abled" is euphemistic. It is borderline cutesy and it diminishes the actual experiences of disabled people. It suggests that the term disability should be uncomfortable and therefore should be avoided. What this does is further increase stigma against disabled people by discouraging discussion about disability and what it means to be disabled. 

Secondly, using the term "differently abled" to refer to disabled people actually reinforces the idea that there is one normal way to be human -- that there is one normal way to move, one normal way to communicate, one normal way to sense, one normal way to feel, one normal way to learn, and one normal way to think. It does not perform its intended purpose of suggesting that all people are different and that this is okay. It suggests that only disabled people, who must now be called "differently abled" instead, are deviant or defective from this normal human model, and it suggests that there is in fact a correct or right way to be "able." It supports the false idea of the normal body/mind, which is what "differently abled" is supposed to undermine, and thus it fails in its supposed purpose. 

Thirdly, the phrase "differently abled" ignores the reality that disability is the result of a complicated interaction between individual people's bodies/minds and social, cultural, and political structures that actively work to disable people with atypical bodies/minds. This happens because "differently abled" suggests that disability is one person's individual problem while also denying the impact of systems that privilege people with typical bodies/minds while marginalizing people with atypical bodies/minds. 

When I say that I am "disabled," I am not putting myself down, insulting myself, suggesting that something is wrong with me, or making a negative statement about myself. I am staking a claim in an identity that is important to who I am as a person. I am recognizing that my mind/body function atypically, and that because of this, I am constantly forced by mainstream social/cultural attitudes and the laws and policies that enforce them to choose between being othered (and then discriminated against or outright harmed) or accepting the idea that I must hide who I am by passing as an abled person. 

By calling myself disabled, I am rejecting the idea that it is wrong to have a mind/body like mine. 

When I say that I am "disabled," I am not reducing myself to my disability, just as I am not reducing myself to my gender or my race when I say that I am genderqueer or that I am Asian. Being disabled is one part, albeit an important part, of my multifaceted identity. Each of these parts overlaps with each other, blurs into each other, and intersects with each other; they are not separated or disparate. It is important for me to define who I am, and being disabled is an important part of how I define myself. 

I do not believe in referring to disabled people as "differently abled" because this language only serves to reinforce oppression of disabled people by systems that marginalize atypical bodies/minds.

 

Source:  http://www.autistichoya.com/2013/08/differently-abled.html

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20 hours ago, mona said:

An example of the ‘’inspirational meme“  

 

 

 

I sent this meme (with good intentions) to @kasper , who is a wheel-chaired person himself . 

Reaction ?   He didn't feel inspired or pleased at all  !

So I agree, more  of our sensitivity is needed in this matter.

 

 

How can anyone feel inspired by this meme?

 

Imo, it ain't a matter of sensitivity more than the need for people to realize that disability can become a reality anytime, anywhere, no matter one's social class.
So one has to define "normality" too, and not only "disability", and imo it's better to unify them under the same category / point of view.
After all, we are just human beings (all of us), fragile & afraid of death.

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