OPED: Stop insulting Stephen Hawking

Mike Ervin
Tribune News Service

Shortly after physicist Stephen Hawking died on March 14, Gal Gadot, the actor to most recently play Wonder Woman, tweeted, "Rest in peace Dr. Hawking. Now you're free of any physical constraints. Your brilliance and wisdom will be cherished forever."

As a person who needs a wheelchair to get around, I find such comments insulting, and I think Stephen Hawking would have, too.

First of all, Hawking didn't even believe in anything like heaven. So if Hawking really has graduated to a place where an old white man with a flowing beard presides over a paradise where nobody is cursed with a disability, it looks like he wasn't so smart after all. And in fact, being a non-believer, Hawking would probably be denied admission to heaven, which means he must be sitting in his wheelchair in hell saying to himself, "I guess I over-thought this universe thing."

More:Stephen Hawking, tourist of the universe, dead at 76

When I hear people imply that, in the blissful afterlife, nobody is crippled, I wonder if they feel the same way when a woman dies or a black person dies. Do they think that being "free" in their case also means the deceased has finally assimilated by shedding the identity that caused them to be oppressed in their mortal lives? "Well at least she's free in heaven now, where she's a white man like everybody else."

And if nobody is crippled in heaven, then, conversely, everybody in hell must be crippled. It must be part of every punishment. Everybody is blind or deaf or stutters.

Rolling through life in a wheelchair, as Hawking did and I do, is not a life of perpetual hell. But it is hell when my wheelchair breaks down. Because then I'm stranded. My wheelchair is what makes it possible for me to get around and enjoy life. In order to get rolling again, I'll have to deal with the corporate arrogance of wheelchair manufacturers, who will put a 5 million percent markup on the price of the parts I need because I can't get them anywhere else. And I'll have to duke it out with my insurance company to get it to pay at least a portion of the repair bill.

But I digress.

Hawking wrote in Science Digest in 1984: "My disabilities have not been a significant handicap in my field, which is theoretical physics. Indeed, they have helped me in a way by shielding me from lecturing and administrative work that I would otherwise have been involved in."

Stephen Hawking enlightened all of us about our place as humans in the universe. But within that universe, there are still a lot of humans who believe a disability is nothing but a burden and a hindrance to success and happiness in life. Sadly, even Hawking couldn't make them more enlightened about that.

— Mike Ervin is a writer and disability rights activist in Chicago.