In the wake of Stephen Hawking’s passing on Wednesday, many tributes have followed a common theme: that in death, Hawking has been “freed” from his disability. A much-shared image shows his electric wheelchair empty in the foreground as he walks, unaided, into the stars. In an op-ed for Vogue, Keah Brown points out the ableism inherent in those sentiments — pointing out that his disability was a part of who he was and what he accomplished, that he was a hero to many people with disabilities because of it, and that people with disabilities should hate their disabled bodies and long to be “free” of them.
Saying Stephen Hawking Is “Free” From His Wheelchair Is Ableist
You might be wondering what is wrong with that. Everything. Stephen himself said, “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.” So why is everyone so eager to erase his disability in discussions of his life’s work? Odds are, it’s because disability makes our society uncomfortable, so much so that instead of embracing him for all that he was to able-bodied and disabled people alike, upon his death, people on social media are focusing on how “good” he must feel outside of his body.