I am angry at Stephen Hawking and after you finish this article, I hope you’ll understand why.
During an interview which was released this past Wednesday, Hawking stated that were he no longer to contribute to society, or if he became a burden, he would consider assisted suicide.
There’s a major problem with Hawking making a statement like this. Hawking is a man with many honors, awards, and publications. He is a man who has changed the way we look at things in our world. He is a man who has had a movie made about his early life. While “The Theory Of Everything” was, in my opinion, an unmitigated inspiration porn nightmare, we can all agree on this: Stephen Hawking is a disabled person who everyone agrees has given a lot to the world through his brilliant mind.
So, when someone who has done so much says that they think about assisted suicide as a solution to their imagined inevitability of no longer having anything to contribute, what does that say about the people with disabilities who haven’t gone through higher education? Who haven’t contributed discipline changing theorems to the world? Who haven’t traveled the world and lectured thousands of people on their scientific thoughts?
Therein lies my issue. Hawking has never stood out as a disability advocate, but in this situation he’s not choosing his words carefully. He’s not thinking about how this might affect other disabled people. He’s not thinking about the effect that his voice will have on countless disabled people around the world.
See, “being a burden” is a phrase that people use often to discount the worthiness of disabled lives, and if you use that phrase from a position where your life already has been considered worth living by millions of people that raises the bar extremely high for those of us who aren’t that special.
It implies that needing care needs justification.
Isn’t living enough?
I worry that in cultures where disabled bodies and lives aren’t valued (like the culture of the United States), someone who is depressed could read his words and see it as a reason not to live anymore.
As someone who has shifted their beliefs on the topic of death with dignity in the last few years, it rankles because even when I have supported the Death With Dignity movement, I have never seen it as a way to prevent people from being a burden.
I have always seen it as a gift for peace. My father died from AIDS/HIV complications, and having seen what that did to him, having seen all of the medical interventions, and the waiting game for his death, I have thought long a hard about what options would be a kindness to those dying from terminal ilnesses. What death with dignity and assisted suicide have become is a way to end lives which society does not value. It is not about kindness, or empathy towards those dying painful deaths.
Does Hawking have a right to think about his death at the age of 73? Yes he does. But as one of the most visible and lauded disabled people in the world he does have the obligation to think about how his choices might affect those of us who aren’t so visible.
If Hawking chooses assisted suicide because he no longer has any more ideas for how to unravel the secrets of the universe, then where does that leave the disabled person whose life contributions are to be a kind person who cares for their friends and family?
Our lives have to be valued not for the contributions that we make, but for the impact upon people. Hawking has done amazing things in his lifetime, and I hope that he will do more.
I just also hope that his words don’t fuel hatred towards those who do not make the same levels of change. I hope no one makes a choice based on comparing his contributions to the world of science, to theirs.
I hope that Hawking’s words won’t be taken as gospel, but as a jumping point to think about what “usefulness” means, that it says something that Hawking’s worth to society is entirely based upon his intellectual contributions – and that he is accepted for them. I hope this dialogue can be one filled with positivity. One where we can celebrate the amazing contributions that disabled minds have made to our world.
I hope. Because my life means something to me, and I contribute to the world as best I can. I see value in disabled lives every day, and I want for each person to know that no matter the assistance they need to continue living, they are not a burden.
I hope that for all of us.