This week the Daily Mail and the Telegraph both ran versions of the same story, highlighting a rant by one particular GP in the doctors magazine Pulse. This particular GP resents spending time with patients who claim sickness benefits or require any support with their claims. Apparently, he expressed the desire to post a picture of Stephen Hawking, with the slogan ‘This bloke is not on the sick’. The argument, on the face of things, appears so utterly fraudulent that it requires no energy or response. However (and I find this no coincidence) it also follows hot on the heals, in the same week as the news poured in about the governments patronizing and exclusionary Disability Employment Conference from which platform endless ‘inspirational’ stories were churned out about specific disabled people who happened to have high-powered jobs, and the very loud clear message that if they could do it, so could everyone else. There was, of course, no mention anywhere within that conference, that what really explains what employment options are open to any person – disabled or able-bodied, are a function of social class, and more than anything else, this conference represented a class war, the lambasting of many working class people with massive barriers with fraudulent comparisons to those with sufficient capital to purchase access for themselves to the world of work.
This notion, that one disabled person represents all disabled people, and if one disabled person works, so should everyone else in the ‘same’ boat is a toxic, regressive notion. It assumes that all people sharing the same impairment are identical, and utterly fails to acknowledge the social origins of the barriers that are faced by disabled people. Disabled people are not disabled in isolation. They are disabled by society. A society driven by race, class, gender and sexuality divisions as well as disabled/able-bodied ones.
To begin: who is Hawking?
Stephen Hawking is, very significantly, an exceptionally wealthy man. He is also 71 years old. If we begin with the statement that Hawking is disabled and still economically active, therefore no other disabled person needs to be financially dependent on the state, then we ALSO need to say that Hawking is over retirement age and still economically active, therefore there should be no such thing as the old age pension. Sadly, as daft as such a statement would seem to most of us, I fear that there may be one or two Torys who wouldn’t disagree.
A Wikipedia biography of Hawkings shows that he came from a significant degree of privileged. At a time when only a tiny minority of people entered university at all, both Hawking’s parents were graduates of Oxford, placing them squarely in the very upper middle classes – despite the rigors of the second world war disrupting his early family life, and some (relative) financial hardships, Hawking grew up with a level of social and cultural capital that only the top one or two percent of the society of his time would have access to.
He was also able-bodied throughout his childhood and teenage years and had earned a 1st class honors degree from Oxford himself, before any signs of trouble on the horizon. The very early symptoms of his emerging disability began during the first year of his doctoral studies. At a time when he believed that he had a fatal illness, and was experiencing some clumsiness, gait disturbances (but was still walking) and slightly slurred speech (but was still talking), Hawking’s doctors advised him to continue with his studies as long as he could, but Hawking himself fell into a depression and felt there was little point in doing so. A combination of privileged family and a more kindly and sympathetic welfare state would have no doubt supported Hawking through this bleak time. (Importantly, an adjustment time allowed to Hawkings, but one that is nt being allowed to people developing disabilities today)
Hawking had contracted Motor Neuron Disease, a condition that normally kills within a matter of a couple of years, but Hawking did not follow the expected prognosis – it took several years before he needed to walk with crutches, and at this point, he also gave up his full time lecturing, and did not, in fact, therefore ‘work’ in a conventional sense from years before he even needed a wheelchair. The role of researcher as undertaken by Hawking, combined with also being a popular author writing for a non-scientific community is as unique, and unobtainable for the average person, as living with, rather than dying of, motor neuron disease is for the average person. During this time, Hawking also had the constant support of his wife, and also had a carer living permanently with them, so that he was enabled to work solely on his physics, and took no part in the labour of running the home or family. Hawking also coped by detaching himself from his disability and while he was engaged in a small number of local campaigns, for issues such as ramps into buildings that he himself used, he rejected the role of disability campaigner, and chose not to identify with this disabled community. Based on his research and popular writings, Hawkings was appointed to a particularly prestigious position, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, at Cambridge.
The book that made Hawking internationally famous, and a multimillionaire, ‘A Brief History of Time’ was completed in 1984. This coincided with a life-threatening health crisis, and the emergence of the Stephen Hawking of popular image today. Receiving an emergency tracheotomy, Hawking lost all ability to speak, and had a voice synthesizer developed for him by his brother in law. (how many disabled people have a brother in law that can develop new technologies to help them adapt?)
Launching his book, Hawking was in no way held back by his dramatic disabilities. Many years of popular media tropes of the Genius Cripple can only have helped. Television story-telling has always pitted the normal intelligence buff super-strong hero against the evil genius wheelchair using or blind super-villan and concepts of the genius cripple have been such a strong part of our popular media culture for so long, that the media had little difficulty using Hawking’s disabilities as a cultural proof of his genius, and why everyone should buy his books.
Hawking’s story IS inspirational in many ways. What he has achieved has been astounding, and we can learn many things from him. Mainly about the structure of the universe, and much less so about the experience of disability. For Hawkings experience only tells us about what is it like to be disabled, and a white, heterosexual, married, wealthy, genius male.
A young, black, lesbian disabled woman who grew up in care, even if she was an equal genius, is never going to walk into a degree in Oxford, nor walk out with a 1st so easily. She will lack the cultural and social capital to enable her to do so. She is unlikely to have a wife to stick by her and run the home and co-ordinate all care so that she can focus exclusively on her writing, and she is not going to be paraded across the TV screens as an obvious and expected example of what genius looks like. And if she is a young black disabled lesbian woman who grew up in care, and is merely of normal-high intelligence, as opposed to a once-in-a-generation genius … ?
Let’s talk about Social Class
There is a prevalent idea, often promoted by disabled communities more than any other group, that disability can happen to anyone. Why would you discriminate and be horrible to disabled people, when you could be in a horror car crash, or have a massive stroke tomorrow yourself? This particular trope is also shown here in this add by the Red Cross.
It begins: “
And then the final line… ‘I am a crisis, and I don’t care who you are’. Chilling. Yet ineffective. Ineffective, because most people don’t want to believe it and therefore reject the message for emotional reasons. But equally actually statistically untrue. Crisis does care who you are. Disability does care who you are. It’s got its own quota, and its quota of ‘have-nots’ is many, many times that of its quota of ‘haves’. The poorer you are, the more likely you are to be born with a disability, and the more likely you are to pick one up during your life. Recent research shows that this gap, predicted to narrow as time went by, is actually widening. You are also much more likely to become disabled if you are black than white, a woman than a man, and queer than straight. Needless to say, being already disabled or having a long term chronic health condition leaves you many times more likely to develop a second disability or chronic illness than a healthy and able-bodied person.
So, who makes up the majority of disabled people? Working class people do. And there are more specific pattern than that. The single largest group of claimants of disability benefits in the UK are working class men from the north of England over the age of 40 who worked in manual labour occupations for about 20 years. And then they get dodgy knees. Or a dodgy back. And can not work again. The second largest group is women with mental health difficulties. Which again is very closely correlated with issues of both race and class as well as gender.
Disability isn’t something that just happens. It is something that is done to you. Often by the labour market.
There are eleven ways to disable cookies. They don’t disable themselves. That’s what disabled means. To be stopped from working. If you disable the cookies on a web site you visit, you choose to stop them from working. By direct action. It can’t happen by itself. The relationship between disabled people and the labour market is a complex one. Yes, sometimes, for some of us, with enough privilidge to be able to enter skilled, meaningful work that is adaptable to our needs, flexible for rest periods and not physically challenging, work can be actively enabling in an other wise disabled life. But work for many can also be the cause of their disability.
People in manual employment develop wear and tear joint damage, cardiovascular difficulties and a host of other ailments in far greater numbers than anyone else. Middle class service professionals succumb to stress and develop auto immune diseases and mental health difficulties in far greater numbers than other groups.
The manual labourer, that ‘typical’ disabled person, was disabled by his work in the first place. The woman with mental health issues was very likely bullied for years in a job that chewed her up and spat her out. Capitalism wins. Profit is made. Disabled people are the by-product. For those (and they are the minority of disabled people) that have no statistical link between their current/former occupation and the disability they develop, capitalism is still making the decisions that disable them and sever their relationship with the means of production and consumption. What is the ‘normal’ working pattern? One that suits the ‘normal’ body only. What is the ‘normal’ house like? One that has stairs. How is a ‘normal’ classroom equipped? In a way that promotes conformity, labels and pathologizes ‘deviance’.
And finally, should our 45 year old brick layer with bad knees be forced off benefits and into destitution because Stephen Hawking is a public figure (who nonetheless probably still gets his DLA, etc)? Fuck that shit. Capitalism disabled him. It used him up and spat him out and wore out his knees until he spends every day in constant pain. His worth is more as a human being than simply a cog in a capitalist machine. Until we can find a way to re-write the capitalist system, the least we can do is allow him to claim his meager benefits with some dignity. Stephen Hawking has nothing to do with it. And the suggestion that Stephen Hawking has anything to do with it is a manipulative and deceitful act of class warfare.