Professor Stephen Hawking must be one of the most talented and inspirational wheelchair-users that the world has ever known. He is certainly the most well-known scientist of our time. He is a British theoretical physicist, author and cosmologist, most famous for his best-selling book on popular science, A Brief History of Time, published in 1988 (which stayed in the Sunday Times best-seller lists for a record 237 weeks). He is an expert on black holes in space and has done a lot of very highly-respected work in scientific circles on this topic. (Hawking radiation has been named after him, which is what happens when black holes leak energy and gradually fade away to nothing). He is the former Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, has been married twice and has 3 children.
Hawking has a rare form of motor neurone disease, amyotropic lateral sclerosis, (ALS) and is almost completely paralysed, so he is permanently confined to a wheelchair and communicates through a voice synthesiser. He lost his voice in 1985 after a tracheotomy following a near-fatal bout of pneumonia. He then began to communicate with a speech synthesiser. A small computer was adapted for this purpose and attached to his wheelchair. He has said of it: “I can communicate better now than before I lost my voice”, which is a very positive take on it. The voice he uses has an American accent and is no longer produced. Even though he could now be given another voice with an English accent, Hawking says he prefers to stick with the original one, otherwise it would be like losing his voice all over again, which is understandable.
His disease deterioration has continued, as evidenced by the fact that previously he was able to activate his speech synthesiser with his hand, but now it is activated by twitching of his cheek muscles. He has increased problems in breathing and sometimes needs a ventilator, and it is possible he may develop locked-in syndrome. In anticipation of this, he is collaborating with researchers who may be able to design systems which use facial expressions or brain patterns to activate the voice machine.
Hawking first began to suffer from health problems related to his disease whilst studying at Oxford University: the first symptoms of this were in his final year when he fell over a couple of times for no apparent reason and his speech became slurred. He was given a diagnosis of motor neurone disease when he was 21, and at the time a life expectancy of around 2 years. This is a progressive illness, but in Hawking's case it has progressed slower than is usual. Maybe this is a result of the sheer effort of will: the genius intellect had so much it wanted to achieve in science, so he has managed to slow down the illness somewhat, in a heroic case of “mind over matter.” Soon after leaving university he had to start using crutches to walk, and by the end of the 1960s he was using a wheelchair, but it took a huge amount of persuasion for him to accept this aid. His wife, Jane Hawking, said: “"Some people would call it determination, some obstinacy. I've called it both at one time or another."
He received a first class honours degree in physics and chemistry from Oxford University in 1962 and went on to study for a doctorate in cosmology at Cambridge University, where he afterwards taught as a professor. Whilst teaching there, he became involved in a dispute over who would pay for the ramp he needed to enter his workplace, and this motivated him and his wife to campaign for improved access and support for the disabled at Cambridge.
To date, he has completely defied the odds by reaching the age of 71, when most people who are diagnosed with his illness are dead within 5 years. Besides all his astonishing scientific achievements, he is a hugely inspirational character in his dealing with his disability. It may be true that most ordinary people who are in wheelchairs or are disabled do not have genius intellects like him, but he shows that by focussing on the positive and on what they want to do, they can still live productive and fulfilled lives.
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