By now, you’ve likely heard the news that Stephen Hawking, the brilliant theoretical physicist, died earlier this week, from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Unsurprisingly, Hawking’s death has resulted in people sharing their thoughts and emotions regarding his impact on their lives and his passing. However, some comments, such as this one, have been called out for being insensitive.
The tweet, in case you can’t be bothered to click the link, shows a picture of Hawking floating around in zero gravity, with text that reads, in part: “This is how I will always remember Dr. Stephen Hawking, freed from the confines of his wheelchair, with the biggest smile on his face I have ever seen…”
The bolded part is my own emphasis, and it’s this sentiment that I want to talk about. Like the author of the Men’s Health article, Andrew Gurza, I believe this comment was well-intentioned. But as I discussed in a previous post, intentions aren’t everything. You can’t just say whatever you want, and if it upsets people, shrug your shoulders and say “Well, I meant well.”
So let’s break down what’s wrong with this bolded part of this tweet:
- Saying someone has been freed from something strongly implies that the thing they were freed from was a bad thing, and being freed is a positive. Don’t believe me? When I typed in the phrase “Freed from” into Google, and went to the News section of the results, the entire first page was stories about people being freed from prison.You also may have seen this story making the rounds: A man in an Elsa costume who unstuck a trapped police vehicle. The money quote: “After pushing for a minute or so, Elsa freed the transport van from its slushy prison.” (Hey, there’s that “prison” word again)
- One of the definitions of the word confines is as follows: “the borders or boundaries of a place, especially with regard to their restricting freedom of movement” (emphasis mine)
So what’s the problem? The problem is, that for many wheelchair users, myself included, a wheelchair is, quite literally the exact opposite of what it’s being portrayed as. My wheelchair isn’t something I want to escape from. It doesn’t hurt me. It’s what allows me to carry my daughter on my lap, and pick her up out of her crib. It’s what allows me to help my wife around the house, and cook dinner. Why would I want to get away from that?
As far as a wheelchair restricting my freedom of movement, let me tell you a story. A few years ago, I was at a doctor’s appointment, and getting my wheelchair out of the back of my Volvo. The parking lot wasn’t level, however, and when I put my wheelchair down on the ground, it rolled down the incline, around a bend, and crashed into a dumpster.
You know what was restricting my freedom of movement at that moment? It wasn’t my wheelchair. It was the fact that my wheelchair was lying on its side several hundred feet away from me. You know what caused my movement to no longer be restricted? Someone from the doctor’s office getting my wheelchair and bringing it back to me so I could get in it.
Maybe you think I’m interpreting the tweet a little too literally. Maybe, you think, the sentiment isn’t that Hawking’s wheelchair was the confining thing for him to be freed from, but his disability.
That’s even more problematic, actually. Yes, my disability is technically what restricts my freedom of movement and prevents me from doing Julio Jones-type things (although my severe addiction to eating chicken wings isn’t helping either). Yes, it has made my life harder in certain ways. But it’s not something I’ve spent 35 years hoping to be “freed” from, least of all through death. I have no idea what happens after we die, but I respect others’ beliefs about it. I can promise you, however, that I’m not looking forward to dying because there could be a heaven where I’m not in a wheelchair.
To begin with, I happen to love being alive, with my beautiful wife, amazing daughter, and wonderful dog. I get to live in a world with the Roanoke Weenie Stand, and where not only did this happen, but it’s recorded on the Internet for all time.
Second, as Gurza writes, my disability is a huge part of my life. It has impacted my entire life, and how I interact with the world. I really hope, if there is indeed a heaven, and I do go there, that I’d bring my disability with me. It’s a major part of who I am.
Here’s the bottom line: perpetuating the notion that the idealized version of someone who has a disability is them without that disability is abelist. For those of you who don’t know, abelism is the idea that people with disabilities are inferior to people without them. This photo, from Melbourne artist Mitchell Toy, is an example of something I’d consider abelist:
No, this photo isn’t explicitly saying “Having a disability is worse than not having one!” But ask yourself why it was then, that of all the things the artist could choose to draw, Toy landed on: Hawking literally turning his back on his wheelchair and walking away from it. If you can’t see why I think that’s strongly implying that this non-wheelchair using version of Hawking is better off, well, we’re just going to have to agree to disagree.
A person with a disability is not automatically improved upon if we remove their disability. There might be some individual people with disabilities who feel that they’d personally be better off without one. But tweets like the one in the Men’s Health article aren’t talking about how people with disabilities feel. In fact, the author of the tweet even says as much when she writes “This is how I will always remember…” (emphasis mine). And while I don’t know this for a fact, I’m guessing Toy did not confer with Hawking before his passing about how he’d feel about a picture like that.
People can, of course, choose to remember someone however they want. And maybe Toy means well. But as I said earlier, good-hearted intent is not an impenetrable shield someone gets to hide behind. Abelism is abelism, whether you know it or not, and whether you intended it or not.
At the end of the day, having a disability is hard for me. That is, quite literally, why this blog exists; so I can have a place to vent my frustrations about the challenges that come along with it. But reading some of the reactions to Hawking’s death makes me realize that there are people out there who aren’t just empathizing with that and trying to help. They’re carrying around the view that my disability is something I need to escape from to have a better life—or afterlife, as it were.
And I’m here to tell them something very simple: You’re wrong.