Sunday, January 28, 2001

Illness put Hawking on path to greatness

        He is the world's most renowned physicist and he can only communicate by pressing words on the computer screen of the speech synthesizer affixed to his motorized wheelchair. Yet, Stephen Hawking told a gathering of scientists, professors and librarians in Bombay, India, last week that his life is much better today, at age 59, than before the onset of his disabilities more than 30 years ago.

        Mr. Hawking was in his 20s when he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, (ALS), a degenerative disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Muscle weakness, paralysis and impaired speech are the legacy of ALS, and eventually the degeneration of cells leads to death.

        His own death was thought to be only two or three years away when Mr. Hawking was 21 — and he credits the wake-up call of that bleak prediction as responsible for his remarkable achievements.

    Who: Stephen Hawking, 59, theoretical physicist and astronomer who holds the Cambridge University post of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, first held by Sir Isaac Newton.
    What: He holds that Einstein's General Theory of Relativity implied space and time would have a beginning in the Big Bang and an end in black holes.
    Soundbite: “I am quite often asked: How do you feel about having ALS? The answer is, not a lot. I try to lead as normal a life as possible, and not think about my condition, or regret the things it prevents me from doing, which are not that many.”
    Information: Go to

        The British physicist who today is known as author of the best-selling A Brief History of Time (Bantam Doubleday Dell Publications, $14.95) and the man who holds the Cambridge University post once held by Sir Isaac Newton, said that before his disease he was “laid back and bored with life.”

        While his story is certainly more dramatic than most, the role of disability as catalyst for greatness is not an unfamiliar one. Helen Keller and our 32nd president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, are other stellar examples of people whose disabilities inspired greatness. It can just as likely be viewed as the cause of a downward spiral or catalyst for self-destruction.

Two extremes

        One of my professors in graduate school never trusted my confidence or positive outlook on life. Her brother had lost his sight in adolescence, she told me, and had subsequently fought depression and insanity the rest of his life. Those, she believed, were the inevitable outcomes of blindness and thus indelibly etched on my future.

        These two extremes — superhero or crumbling vessel, saint or sinner, maven or monster — have been the depictions of disability in countless works of art, film, and literature. The reality is that most real people with disabilities lie somewhere in the middle.

        If you were paralyzed in a car crash tomorrow, lost your hearing to a sudden bolt of lightning, or discovered that your sight was rapidly deteriorating because of an unknown virus, you would still be the same person you are today. What disability does seem to cause is a certain magnification of existing characteristics.

        In other words, someone with a great sense of humor before disability might become a comedian afterward. Shy people sometimes become more withdrawn, and extroverts borderline obnoxious. I've seen it happen hundreds of times — the person with no direction is suddenly mobilized to focus on specific goals after a pivotal incident resulting in disability. Or, just as often, the person with no direction embraces disability onset as rationale for aimlessness.

Just part of the package


        Certainly, a physical, sensory or cognitive disability can be a test of resources. All disabilities demand a certain degree of creativity and flexibility, an aptitude for adapting or finding an alternate method.

        For most real people with disabilities, once they find their “stride,” just want to move forward with their lives. Some are ordinary, some extraordinary. Some see disability as moving them more quickly along the path that was there all along. The disability, most will tell you, is just one part of an overall package — albeit a part that often serves as a leader for the rest of the human being.

        Stephen Hawking, in other words, was born brilliant. ALS sped him toward putting that brilliance to work. My professor's brother, undoubtedly, was a troubled young man before losing his sight. Disability magnifies what has always been there.

        Cincinnati writer Deborah Kendrick is a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities. Write her at Cincinnati Enquirer, Tempo, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. E-mail:

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