Stephen Hawking had a complicated relationship with Israel. He worked closely with Israeli scientists, and visited Israel several times. In the later part of his life, however, he was convinced that he should stand up for Palestinians by boycotting Israel. I disagreed with him on that front because the best way to stand up for the Palestinians is to help them reach a peace agreement with Israel so there can be a two-state solution. Boycotting Israel only serves to undermine the only true Democracy in the Middle East. But being a genius in one area does not guarantee being a genius in all of them. And Hawking was not, as some would have people believe, an anti-Semite.
For the disability community, which is 1-in-5 people on earth, Stephen Hawking was what the movie Black Panther is to the African American community and Wonder Woman is to women. Only he was real. He proved that disability does not need to limit people individually – or their contributions to the world.
Stephen Hawking not only unlocked the secrets of the universe while using a power wheelchair and assistive technology to speak. He also married twice and had three children. He had a sense of wonder and humor. I disagreed with him on politics and religion, while marveling about how he was able to advance dignity and equality for the 1.2 billion people on our planet who have a physical, mental health, sensory, cognitive or other disabilities simply by being himself.
Today there are 22 million working–age people with disabilities in the United States, and while studies show that most of them want to work, only 1-in-3 of them has a job. A big obstacle to employment is stigma. Many people think that if you have a disability – which is defined by having a barrier to everyday living – you cannot do anything well. I know this first hand from many angles.
When I was in college, one of my legs was crushed by a car which pinned me between a VW Dasher and a guard rail. I had multiple operations and spent much of my senior year as a wheelchair user. It was before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), so there were very few places where I could go without someone picking me up over a curve or carrying me and the wheelchair upstairs. But when I did go places, I found that people spoke to me very loudly – as if the issue with my leg post-operations meant that I was also hearing impaired. They also spoke to me slowly – as if I had a cognitive disability. The power of stigmas.
The media explosion around Stephen Hawking and his immense talents meant that today there are fewer stigmas. Now I walk just fine, but I have several coworkers, board members and friends who use wheelchairs. Because of the ADA, they can now get around – though the U.S. Congress just passed H.R. 620 which if it becomes law would undermine those rights. Every day I see and benefit from the talents people who use wheelchairs and have a variety of other disabilities. While none of them is as famous or successful as Steven Hawking yet, each of them is a fantastic contributor to making the world a better place.
At the Academy Awards recently, best actress winner Frances McDormand said what may have been the two most powerful words ever said from that stage: “Inclusion Rider”. An inclusion rider would mean that what we see on screen, and the people who make the content we see on screen, would better reflect the broad scope of humanity. Inclusion riders would enable people of different races, gender identities and orientations, and disabilities to fully participate in Hollywood. Inclusion riders would also enable the innovation of people with disabilities to bring strength to storytelling. Stephen Hawking’s life was brought to theaters already, but there are many more stories to live and to tell.
This week our organization RespectAbility will release a toolkit for Hollywood on disability inclusion because when it comes to diversity it is not only will – but also skill. For example, most people do not know that you can add captions to videos and make Twitter and Facebook screen-reader accessible for free so that people who are deaf or blind can fully participate online.
Two days before Steven Hawking died, I got a letter from his office informing me that he would be unable to come to the U.S. Capitol, even by Skype, to accept an award from our organization thanking him for being a role model for people with disabilities. The letter informed us that he had not been in good health in recent weeks. I shared the letter with our entire team as we are major fans of how he showed by example that people with disabilities are not to be judged by their disabilities – but by their abilities. We immediately sent him a card — signed by every one of us – thanking him and wishing him well.
The night before Hawking died our family discussed him at the dinner table — his great scientific talents and stigma fighting for people with disabilities, and our disappointment in his views on Israel. We then sat and watched an interview he did with Neil DeGrasse Tyson. We woke the next day to see that he had died. Outside of the Jewish and Arabic press the coverage of him did not mention Israel or the Palestinians. The media and world saw him for his great mind and as a role model. Hawking did not believe in God or an afterlife. But overall his memory will continue to live and inspire us, perhaps for centuries to come.