Stephen Hawking had it all – at least in his head. As a boy growing up in England in the 1950s, his family often spent meals with each person silently reading a book. Such intellectual nurturing of his natural genius helped him along to Oxford, where he was often bored because he found his chemistry and physics studies too easy. After receiving a first-class BA honors degree in physics, he began his graduate work at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in October 1962.
That’s where, the next year, at age 21, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, (“ALS,” or Lou Gehrig’s disease), a terminal illness that affects and causes the deaths of neurones that control the brain and the spinal cord. He was given two years to live.
The rest of his life – which turned out to last until age 76 — was a life-long struggle coping with an ever-worsening physical condition, as ALS gradually paralyzed him over the decades. First, he used crutches, then a series of wheelchairs, which had to be changed out when he couldn’t use his hands anymore. He eventually lost his ability to write.
His speech worsened. He had to have friends and colleagues interpret his speech to others. He contracted pneumonia, which in his condition was life-threatening – they came ever so close to terminating his life support. Doctors eventually performed a tracheotomy, which entailed the removal of what remained of his speech.
Now mute, Hawking used a computer program called the “Equalizer,” which enabled voice simulation – with an American accent that he liked. At first he controlled the program by hand. But as his body continued to deteriorate, he was able to use it only by moving a single cheek muscle.
Throughout these struggles, Stephen’s mind only expanded – to the very frontiers of time and space, and beyond. He led a brilliant life as a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author. He served as a professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge between 1979 and 2009, and later as director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge. He won over 20 awards and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Hawkins is perhaps best known for his work in popularizing and explaining cosmology and other advanced sciences through his books, including the legendary A Brief History of Time, and a lifetime of educating people through lecturing and teaching.
One can only imagine what Stephen’s fate might have been if he applied for work at the kind of company that takes one look at someone’s disabilities, and that’s all they see. Imagine all the things such employers might assume he couldn’t do.
We at the EEOC have long had the honor of enforcing the ADA, protecting people with all sorts of disabilities with various levels and types of difficulties. As we know all too well, ADA cases often involve failure-to-hire situations which are typically hard to prove. When we get frustrated at such challenges, we can take inspiration from people like this brilliant man in the increasingly uncooperative body who wouldn’t let anyone or anything keep him from the stars.
Few of us will ever be such geniuses, but employers need to remember that if Stephen Hawking didn’t let severe disabilities stop him from living his amazing life, they shouldn’t put obstacles in the path of anyone showing what’s possible in the universe of the American workplace.