A Tribute to Stephen Hawking, a Remarkable Theoretical Physicist and Advocate for People with Disabilities

I want to show that people need not be limited by physical handicaps as long as they are not disabled in spirit.” – Dr. Stephen Hawking
Professor Stephen Hawking passed away on March 14, 2018, at the age of 76. The famous theoretical physicist helped bring the concepts of black holes and quantum gravity to a broad public audience. One of his biggest breakthroughs occurred in 1973 when Hawking discovered that black holes were not truly black; a tiny amount of radiation could escape their grasp (University of Cambridge, 2018). This radiation is now referred to as Hawking Radiation. On reminiscing about his discovery, Hawking said, “I wasn’t looking for them [Hawking Radiation] at all. I merely tripped over them. I was rather annoyed” (New York Times, 2018). This radical rethinking of gravity and quantum mechanics is largely seen as the first “great landmark in the struggle to find a single theory of nature” (New York Times, 2018). It is no exaggeration to say that Hawking’s discovery has driven and continues to drive theoretical physics forward (The Atlantic, 2018). 
Author of A Brief History of Time and From the Big Bang to Black Holes, Dr. Hawking was known throughout the world for his works and his humor. Born on January 8, 1942 (exactly three hundred years after the death of Galileo Galilei), Hawking learned as a graduate student at Cambridge University in 1963 that he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative neuromuscular disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). He was given only a few years to live (New York Times, 2018). As he would later come to learn, however, Dr. Hawking had a very slow-progressing form of ALS, which affects less than a few percent of people with the condition (Scientific American, 2018). For most of his adult life, Hawking had diminishing control over his body, eventually only being able to interact through the flexing of his index finger and voluntary eye movements. To improve his ability to communicate, under Hawking's request, Intel and smartphone keyboard company, SwiftKey, developed the Assistive Contextually Aware Toolkit (ACAT)(Quartz, 2018). The software used predictive machine learning algorithms that had been trained on Hawking’s work, and  Dr. Hawking's innovative communication systems and specialized wheelchair allowed Dr. Hawking to share his work and respond much more quickly. On the effect of assistive technology on his life he wrote, "Without this technology, I would be mute, a prisoner inside my own mind. I would not be able to ask for a cup of tea, let alone describe my no-boundary theory of how the universe began. Because I have had such phenomenal technological support, I feel a responsibility to speak for others who have not" (Mashable, 2018).
Hawking remained active throughout his life, spending thirty years as a full professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge (Scientific American, 2018). In 2009, Hawking was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, who on the occasion said, "From his wheelchair, he's led us on a journey to the farthest and strangest reaches of the cosmos. In so doing, he has stirred our imagination and shown us the power of the human spirit here on Earth" (Obama White House, 2013). In an interview with the New York Times shortly after Hawking’s death, Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York said, “Not since Albert Einstein has a scientist so captured the public imagination and endeared himself to tens of millions of people around the world" (New York Times, 2018).
Writing on his condition on his website, Dr. Hawking said, “I have had motor neuron disease for practically all my adult life. Yet it has not prevented me from having a very attractive family and being successful in my work. I have been lucky that my condition has progressed more slowly than is often the case. But it shows that one need not lose hope" (University of Cambridge, 2018). A few months before his death, Dr. Hawking also shared, “I want to share my excitement and enthusiasm about this quest. So remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious, and however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up" (University of Cambridge, 2018). Lucie Bruijn, Chief Scientist of The ALS Association, an advocacy and research organization in Washington, D.C., described Hawking as an inspiration for people with disabilities, saying, "He was a real figure of hope — that you can do things like communicate and continue to pursue a lifelong dream"  (Mashable, 2018).
Dr. Hawking’s body may have lived in his wheelchair, but his mind lived among the cosmos. He never accepted that he should be limited by his condition, and he outlived his prognosis by five decades. In the process, he transformed our understanding of the universe and many people's perceptions of disability. In the preface of the World Health Organization's World Report on Disability (2011), Hawkings wrote, “Disability need not be an obstacle to success. I have had motor neuron disease for practically all my adult life. Yet it has not prevented me from having a prominent career in astrophysics and a happy family life. In fact, we have a moral duty to remove the barriers to participation and to invest sufficient funding and expertise to unlock the vast potential of people with disabilities. Governments throughout the world can no longer overlook the hundreds of millions of people with disabilities who are denied access to health, rehabilitation, support, education and employment and never get the chance to shine.”
Throughout his life, Dr. Hawking believed that knowledge and the universe should be available to all; not locked away in texts that only academics could access and understand. Beyond his own books and publications, a film was produced on his life. The Theory of Everything is an award-winning 2014 British biographical romantic drama film set at Cambridge University and details Hawking's life. It was adapted from the memoir, Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, by Jane Hawking, Dr. Hawking's wife of thirty years. 
Reflecting on the immense accomplishments of his old friend, Martin Rees, a Cambridge University cosmologist, the Astronomer Royal of England wrote of his longtime colleague, “His name will live in the annals of science; millions have had their cosmic horizons widened by his best-selling books; and even more, around the world, have been inspired by a unique example of achievement against all the odds — a manifestation of amazing willpower and determination" (Deccan Herald, 2018). Living with a life-long disability and possessing an uncommon spirit and intellect, Dr. Hawking’s attitudes and achievements inspire hope. Dr. Hawking and his singular intellect stand as a testament to his work in raising awareness and trying to improve life for people with disabilities while figuring out the mysteries of the cosmos. 


The contents of this website were developed under a grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR grant number 90RE5025-01-00). NIDILRR is a Center within the Administration for Community Living (ACL), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The contents of this website do not necessarily represent the policy of NIDILRR, ACL, HHS, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.