Recent tributes honoring the life and death of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking have reignited a long time debate on the topic of “ableism”. Images such as this one depicting Hawking free of his wheelchair and walking among the stars are among those sparking a lively debate about ableism.
For me there are really two parts to this debate. What is or is not appropriate in an expression of one’s feelings about the death of a celebrity? And separately does this particular tribute or other similar statements made in tribute to Stephen Hawking really represent ableism.
If you’re not familiar with the term “ableism”, it is a type of prejudice which denigrates those with physical disability in favor of those who are able-bodied. It is a type of prejudice that has parallels to racism and sexism.
Before addressing the claims of ableism, I’d like to address the issue of celebrity tributes in general. When a celebrity dies, we often see tributes to them which are not necessarily in tune with the deceased’s particular beliefs or wishes. We saw the same thing when Steve Jobs died. A number of cartoons depicted him in heaven and/or being in the presence of God which would have been contrary to his Buddhist beliefs. Here’s a page with a good sampling.
There was similar controversy during this year’s Super Bowl halftime concert by Justin Timberlake who projected an image of Prince onto a large screen. Prince had specifically said he did not want to appear as a hologram after his death. Although not technically a hologram, it did have a sort of ethereal holographic feel to it.
The Steve Jobs tributes were undoubtedly disrespectful of his religious beliefs. The criticism of the Super Bowl depiction of Prince was probably a little bit nitpicky especially since it wasn’t really a hologram. Furthermore it was not complicated by religious overtones. But was there anything similarly inappropriate about this particular tribute to Hawking?
This article from time.com documents his beliefs about God and an afterlife.
In various statements, he made his atheist stance quite clear. This included his disbelief of any sort of afterlife. His beliefs about God confused people because he had written famously that if we understood how the universe worked that we would glimpse “the mind of God”. He later made it clear that he was speaking much more metaphorically. For him God was not a particular being with which one would have a personal relationship. Rather God was a metaphorical concept of the manner in which the universe worked. He did not believe in a being like God who was responsible for creating it. He was instead saying that to have knowledge of the universe would give you a godlike perspective.
Similar confusion surrounds statements from Albert Einstein when he famously said “God does not throw dice” in expressing his difficulty with the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics. In a recent biographical TV series “Genius”. Einstein is not portrayed in any way as a religious person or a man of faith. His defense of the persecution of his own Jewish people appeared to be more based on human rights concern rather than devotion to his religious heritage. It’s pretty clear that Einstein was speaking metaphorically about God rather than from a position of faith.
While this image of Hawking walking among the stars isn’t as blatantly as religious as those depicting Steve Jobs in heaven talking to God, it does presuppose a type of afterlife which Hawking pretty clearly had rejected. The Time article quotes an interview in which he says
“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail,” he told the Guardian. “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
Personally I consider myself a man of faith and a man of science even though many find these two disciplines to be incompatible and mutually exclusive. Without getting into that debate, I have to also say I have the deepest respect for those who are devout atheists or agnostics because at one point in my life I was very much an agnostic and I appreciated those who respected my beliefs.
On the other hand, such depictions are an expression of our own personal beliefs about the person. They are an artistic expression of the artist’s reaction to the death of someone they admired or respected. I believe in an afterlife despite the lack of scientific evidence. That is the nature of faith. I tend to believe that heroes of mine who happened to be atheists such as Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, and Isaac Asimov who have led exemplary lives and contributed to the good of the world are enjoying Paradise in an afterlife despite their disbelief in an afterlife while here on earth.
So in some respects the image in question expresses my beliefs about the fate of Prof. Hawking whether that image reflects his beliefs or not. Despite his espoused atheism and his expression that religious beliefs were fairytales, I would not describe him as blatantly anti-religion or radically disparaging of those with religious beliefs along the lines of someone like comedian Bill Maher. I would hope that he would understand that such a depiction expressed the artist’s wishes for him rather than be offended by it.
Inappropriate tributes to the dead which disrespect their beliefs and desires are a mild form of prejudice. They are an imposition of one’s own worldviews onto that of another. I think they are relatively minor offenses but there are other forms of prejudice that are more destructive. Racism, sexism, religious intolerance, LGBT intolerance and ableism are all impositions of one’s own worldview one to another.
Perhaps it is disrespectful of Hawking’s atheist stance but is that image ablest? What constitutes ableism? Is it the same as other forms of prejudice such as sexism or racism?
Apart from this particular image, there have been other statements such as “He is finally free of his burden”. While I don’t have links to such statements, I don’t doubt that they exist. And in some respects claims of ableism about such statements are more credible than the charges against this particular piece of art.
I can understand how people who are especially sensitive towards ableism might see that expressed in this image but I do not. Let me explain upfront that anything I’m about to say should in no way be construed to discount ableism as a real and destructive thing. Ableism exists and it needs to be confronted in the same way as any form of prejudice. However I really believe some of what is labeled as ableism is unjustified.
Ableism, racism, and sexism have much in common. They are all distorted worldviews which unjustifiably proclaim the superiority of one group of people over another. They denigrate and dehumanize classes of people. They are born of ignorance. They are born of fear. In extreme cases the purveyors of these prejudices are blatant and unapologetic. But the most insidious forms of these prejudices are those in which the believers are unaware of their innate negative biases.
I believe that this subtle unconscious form of prejudice constitutes 99.9% of ableism. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who would openly speak out against people with disabilities in the same way that we see unapologetic denigration of races, religious beliefs, women, or sexual orientation. It takes a pretty hard core Nazi-like person to speak disparagingly of the disabled.
It is common for people with prejudices to deny them. We have seen obvious racists declare “I am the least racist person you’ll ever find.” The most misogynistic men will proclaim their love and respect for women. Religious bigots full of intolerance hypocritically express a devotion to love fellow all human beings.
In contrast, I believe that when most people have an ablest attitude, they are genuinely unaware of the mistake of their perspective. They are almost always uninformed well-intentioned people who lack the knowledge or perspective to see the mistake of their attitude. Unlike racism, sexism, or religious hatred, people expressing ableism are more often genuinely unaware of the hurtful nature of their misperceptions. Expressions of ableism rarely are an exposure of underlying core beliefs of the person in the way that other forms of prejudice are an expression of basic character flaws. They are more easily educated and converted away from their mistaken understanding of people with disabilities.
Ableism is most often expressed in the form of pity towards the disabled person. They feel sorry for us in our horrible condition. Despite the inappropriateness of the pity and the hurtful nature of being pitied, such expressions come from a legitimately well-intentioned motivation. The condescending attitude comes not from an egotistical sense of self superiority but from a genuine misunderstanding of what it’s like to have a disability.
All prejudice is driven by fear of loss. White supremacists fear the loss of their power and perceived superiority. Sexists fear the loss of their male dominance. Religious bigots fear that alternate belief systems challenge their own beliefs and sense of certainty.
But in the case of ableism, it is the genuine and legitimate fear that someday they will end up with a disability of their own. There is a sense of awe and amazement that someone can persist in spite of a disadvantage which they themselves believe unsurmountable. The fear driven amazement is expressed in condescending, hurtful, and even dehumanizing ways. So even though ableism is not as inherently evil in its origins as other forms of prejudice, the effects of it are no less destructive.
All forms of prejudice are harmful. That harm is very personal to its victims. Prejudice must be confronted, exposed, attacked, denounced and discredited. Although it is difficult to eradicate among its believers, through thoughtful education its spread can be halted. But in our zeal to do so, there is always the risk of seeing such prejudice were it doesn’t really exist.
I am reminded of the joke about the guy who goes to a therapist and the therapist administers an inkblot test. “What does this image remind you of?” the therapist asks. The patient replies “sex”. “What about this?” Again he replies “sex”. As each abstract image is shown to the patient he replies “sex”. The therapist says “Mr. Jones has it occurred to you that you’re obsessed with sex?” Jones replies “Me? You are the one with all of the dirty pictures!”
Sadly in the face of all the real sexism, racism, and ableism… Some people find it where it does not exist. In some respects I think that may be the case in this particular circumstance. I don’t think this particular image is an expression of even subconscious ableism.
It depicts Hawking walking among the stars out of his wheelchair. As evidence that Hawking might not have been offended by the image in that way, I offer up the fact that he had booked passage on a Virgin Galactic flight into outer space where he would experience zero-g. In his New York Times obituary linked here there is a photo of him about halfway down the page showing him out of his wheelchair floating in simulated zero gravity. He is on board a so-called “vomit comet” airplane which flies a parabolic arc inducing a freefall. The smile on his face and the fact that he did not go about this adventure while continuing to be strapped into his chair (which he could have done) tells me that an image of him floating free from his chair would have in no way offended him. While you might point out that the artwork in question depicts him upright rather than floating at an odd angle, I don’t believe that’s a significant difference.
While I am sympathetic and respectful of those whose anti-ableism sensitivities are triggered by such an image, I think there is a significant difference between ableism and other forms of prejudice that make some of it unjustified. I do not believe that all expressions of dislike of a disability are necessarily a bad thing. I think they represent the reality that having a disability is legitimately an undesirable situation.
That doesn’t mean that everything about having a disability is bad. In my own tribute to Stephen Hawking, I explained that the reason that I so admired him and considered him a role model despite my natural tendency to avoid role models was that he had made positive use of his disability. Because of the limitations imposed on him by his physical condition, he adapted his methods of reasoning to rely upon mental visualization techniques rather than writing out derived equations as is the usual strategy. This gave him insights to the cosmological questions he was pondering that had escaped notice by other physicists in his field. So there was an aspect of his disability that was undoubtedly an asset. Recognizing that in some ways my disability is a God-given gift or from a non-theological perspective simply asset in my life, I felt a connection to Stephen Hawking. I wrote in my tribute to him “Understanding that Hawking had similarly turned his disability to his advantage was a conformational data point to prove my hypothesis that having a disability wasn’t all bad.”
The clichéd proverb states “When life gives you lemons… make lemonade” acknowledges the fact that lemons are sour but you can still make something good from them. It doesn’t deny the fact that your life has taken a negative turn. It only proposes that such negatives can be turned around into positives.
All prejudice presupposes an illegitimate or insignificant difference between groups. One race is considered superior to another race for no justifiable reason. Any measurable differences between races can always be justifiably explained as being caused by the effects of institutional racism rather than being justifiable reasons for racism. Sexism against women is not based upon the legitimate biological differences between men and women but is rather a defense of institutional and cultural domination of men over women. Hate against different religious groups or directed towards sexual orientation have their roots in belief systems rather than measurable superiority. Such prejudices are inherently subjective rather than objective.
But in the case of ableism, there are objective, demonstrable, measurable differences between able-bodied people and people with disabilities. These differences should not be used to denigrate the value and basic humanity of people with disabilities. Ableism is wrong. It is evil. It is real and should be confronted and stopped. But because people with disabilities are measurably different than able-bodied people, not every attempt to discuss these differences or to describe a disability in a negative light is in fact evil ableism.
In order to live a productive life with a disability, it is absolutely essential that one come to terms with one’s condition and to accept it as a part of themselves. It is okay to identify intimately with one’s disability and to embrace the positive aspects of it. But to deny that there are negative aspects to it is to deny reality.
I offer the following challenge to people with disabilities. If someone presented you with a magic button that you could push that would instantly remove your disability without robbing you of the insights, perspective, and giftedness that your disability has provided you, would you not push that button?
No matter how accepting I am of my situation… No matter how much I view my disability as not only an asset but literally a gift from God above. I would push that fucking button in a millisecond. My guess is that the vast majority of people with disabilities would do so as well no matter how deeply they embraced their current condition.
The difference between having a disability or being of a particular race or gender is that by its very nature it has the power to enslave you. The enslavement of race or gender is externally imposed. The enslavement of disability comes from the disability itself.
Did black people like being slaves? Do they enjoy the economic disadvantages imposed them by their race? Do they embrace being presumed guilty and gunned down in the streets by racist police? Of course they do not. It doesn’t mean they don’t want to be black or can’t be proud to be black.
Do women enjoy making 70 cents on the dollar compared to men? Do they enjoy the degradation and sexual abuse? Recent events show that we are finally listening to their expressions about the extent of this degradation. While they fight to be free of such limitations it doesn’t mean they don’t want to be women.
The desire to be free of the disadvantages of a disability is not an assault on one’s identity as a disabled person. Much of what is mistakenly labeled as ableism is NOT an expression in the belief of the superior value of able-bodied people over disabled people. It is a legitimate recognition of the genuine disadvantages of disability.
Many of the negative aspects of having a disability can be mitigated by changing people’s attitudes. By changing society. By changing negative stereotypes. By educating people. But having a disability is inherently, objectively, measurably a disadvantage. It is legitimate and non-ablest to point out these differences. It is legitimate to want to be free from these inherent disadvantages. And it is not only legitimate but praiseworthy to hope for others to be free of those disadvantages.
Part of the problem comes down to evolving terminology. We have evolved our language in such a way that it is driven more by the forces of arbitrary political correctness rather than logical reasoning. Words are abused in such a way that they lose their legitimate meaning. I’ve talked about this before in other essays but I will try to summarize my beliefs here.
I have a “disease”. It is a genetic neuromuscular disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2. It is part of who I am. I literally would be a different person without it because it is genetic. Other diseases are caused by bacteria or viruses such as polio or AIDS. Similarly there are medical conditions caused by outside forces. Cerebral palsy is typically a result of anoxia during childbirth. Spinal cord injuries come about by physical trauma. All of these are “medical conditions”. Short of a medical cure or some natural healing process, these don’t go away. They are an undeniable reality.
My disease and any other medical condition results in a “disability”. I am literally dis-able to do certain things. I can’t walk. I can’t take care of my personal needs. I cannot feed myself. I have virtually no use of my arms. These are things that objectively I cannot do. There is truth in the abused cliché “everyone has a disability.” You can’t fly without an airplane. You can’t lift 5000 pounds with your bare hands. You are literally dis-able to do these things. The difference is, you don’t expect to be able to do these things and nobody expects you to. Nobody else can either.
That’s where the word “handicap” comes into play. Unfortunately is a word that has fallen out in favor but it still has an important legitimate meaning and use. Your handicap is the way that your disability interacts with your environment. When a disability restricts you from doing the things you want to do and/or that the world around you expects you to be able to do then it becomes a handicap. Nobody expects you to lift 5000 pounds with your bare hands or fly like Superman. And even though it might be fun, that disability really doesn’t adversely affect your life. Being able to walk, care for myself, engage in the types of physical activities that most people is something that I could reasonably want to do and that the world about me expects me to be able to do.
People militantly declare “I’m not disabled”. Bullshit! That’s denying reality. You have a disease or medical condition. Willing it away or denying it doesn’t work. Short of a medical cure, you are stuck with it. Similarly that disease or medical condition gives you a disability. Again willing it away, denying it, ignoring it doesn’t work. Handicaps are different. Handicaps can be changed. You can overcome handicaps. Change my environment. Put me in an environment with curb ramps, elevators, accessible transportation. Provide me with affordable assistant technology such as wheelchairs, adaptive computers, alternative communication tools. Adjust society’s expectations of me. I can eliminate my handicap. These strategies will never cure my disease, remove my medical condition, or give me abilities that I will never have. They do eliminate handicaps.
One of my problems with the shift from the term handicapped to disabled is that it is applied to assistance programs. By establishing programs for disabilities rather than handicaps we are saying that the disability, in and of itself, entitles you to assistance. I know of people with disabilities who do not have a handicap and do not need or deserve any sort of assistance. Apart from medical research, no benefit or program is ever going to get rid of a disability. But appropriately administered government and private programs can and do eliminate handicaps.
Those who declare “I’m not disabled” or “don’t call me disabled” are denying reality. Scream that you are not handicapped and I will support you. On a good day neither am I. Deny your disability and you are living in fantasy land.
Denying a disability exists is one extreme. Denying the negative aspects of disability is another extreme. There has to be a middle ground in which you can embrace the giftedness of a disability and own it as part of your identity without denying the reality of the inherent disadvantages to it.
Anything that diminishes our humanity or is an expression of a lack of respect for our humanity and free will, regardless of what kind of -ism it is, must be challenged, intolerated, and eliminated. But crying wolf and unjustifiably accusing people of such denigrating attitudes where they don’t exist only serves to perpetuate that which we are trying to oppose.
This note is added April 14, 2018.
Stephen Hawking was interviewed in an episode of Star Talk by host Neil Degrasse Tyson. The episode aired shortly before Hawking died. I just got around to watching it today. In it, Tyson asks “Stephen, you’ve been in that zero G airplane, I’ve always wanted to go. I wondered where it felt like for you.” Hawking replies (as they show photos of him floating in zero G smiling) “It was wonderful to float weightless free of my wheelchair. I could’ve gone on and on and on.” For me that definitively ends the debate on whether or not postmortem depictions of him free of his wheelchair are appropriate for not. The words “free of my wheelchair” are his words. And he didn’t say “it was a fun experiment one time”. Instead he said “I could’ve gone on and on and on.” Case closed.