I wrote for NBC about the death of Stephen Hawking, arguing:
A life like Hawking’s might easily fall into one of two ableist (discrimination or stigma based on prejudice and misconceptions about disability) tropes: The “supercrip” and the body/mind split. In the former, his accomplishments might suggest he “overcame” his disability. In the latter, his disability vanishes from the story as we emphasize the beauty of his mind.
Not only would either be untrue to Hawking’s own words about disability, it sends the wrong message to others. We need to see the scientist as a whole person with a complicated life story. He was a genius, he worked incredibly hard, he had access to great health care and social support, he had plenty of privilege and received help from countless people behind the scenes.
In 1988, a lush profile of the scientist in Time opened with, “Hawking is confined to a wheelchair, a virtual prisoner in his own body, but his intellect carries him to the far reaches of the universe.” Thirty years later, nothing has changed. . The New York Times, USA Today, Ars Technica, The Telegraph, and Science all described Hawking as “confined” to his chair. CNN used the much-loathed phrase, “wheelchair-bound.” For the Los Angeles Times, Hawking was “was chained to a wheelchair… but whose mind soared [beyond] the boundaries of the universe.” The Guardian called him a “Delphic oracle” whose “physical impairment seemed compensated by almost supernatural gifts, which allowed his mind to roam the universe freely.” Obituary writing is a tricky art, but these cliched structures reveal a desire to split the disabled body from the brilliant mind, rather than seek an integral whole person.
Then there were the cartoons. An image of him walking away from his chair into the cosmos went viral. Another cartoon showed him standing at the Pearly Gates, chair nowhere in sight. Hawking, of course, was an atheist. Obituary writing is a tricky art, but these cliched tropes reveal a desire to split the disabled body from the brilliant mind, rather than seek an integral whole person.
Obituaries for famous people are often written long in advance. I wonder how long ago these obituaries were drafted. I hope that when the next famous disabled people die, obituary writers do a little more editing.
There’s a better way:
Journalists need to learn the word “use,” when it comes to wheelchairs. It’s a good word. Nice and neutral.
— David M. Perry (@Lollardfish) March 15, 2018
Here’s two great pieces to read on Hawking: