At the age of 21, a brilliant student studying at Oxford, Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with a rare motor neuron disease. He was given 2 years to live. Stephen Hawking died at the age of 76, a man who had transformed theoretical physics and challenged notions of disability.
Hawking had a rare early-onset form of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as motor neuron disease or Lou Gehrig's disease.
For much of his public life, he was confined to a wheelchair and since 1985, spoke with the help of a voice system following a tracheotomy, something he operated with his cheek.
Hawking’s condition was rare. Most patients with ALS are diagnosed after 50 and die within 5 years.
What is ALS?
It is a neurodegenerative disease. Each muscle in our body is controlled by motor neurons. Upper motor neurons reside in the brain in the frontal lobe. These are controlled electrically and are connected to lower motor neurons that reside in the spinal cord.
The disease causes weakness of either upper motor neurons or lower motor neurons or both. At present there is no cure for this disease.
5 to 10 percent of cases of ALS are inherited or genetic. According to Mayo Clinic, in most people with what they call familial ALS, children have a 50-50 chance of developing the disease.
Hawking defied his doctors who gave him 2 years to live. Doctors believed he had a more rare form of ALS, where the progression was very slow. This coupled with excellent round-the-clock care he received helped the theoretical physicist write ‘A Brief History of Time.’
Hawking On His Disability
Hawkings credited his disease for helping him expand his mind. He was quoted as saying that before he developed the disease he had been bored with life, writes BBC.
If you are disabled, it is probably not your fault, but it is no good blaming the world or expecting it to take pity on you. One has to have a positive attitude and must make the best of the situation that one finds oneself in; if one is physically disabled, one cannot afford to be psychologically disabled as well.
My disabilities have not been a significant handicap in my field, which is theoretical physics. Indeed, they have helped me in a way by shielding me from lecturing and administrative work that I would otherwise have been involved in.
He had a sense of humour about his disease.
The human race is so puny compared to the universe that being disabled is not of much cosmic significance.