Stephen Hawking: Inspiration and aspiration

The world lost a brilliant mind last week in Stephen Hawking. He has been a hero and inspiration to me ever since I was 14 years old.

I had just newly emerged as a typer-communicator, and I was finally getting access to mainstream education through a charter school. What I saw on TV was an individual who was wheelchair-bound and pretty severely affected by his disability.

But he was communicating, and the words being spoken from his device were on a different level and on a different plane. He was oozing knowledge.

Later into the TV program, I learned that he was the Stephen Hawking, one of the most brilliant minds of our time after Albert Einstein.

I remember being perplexed and quite curious as to how he managed to communicate despite the significant challenges posed by his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. I really wanted to learn more about his communication system. After all, communication is so fundamental to our functioning in society, and it is an area that we nonspeakers struggle with.

Hawking had completely lost his voice by 1985 and had to rely on a series of software systems to help him communicate. His initial system involved a hand switch, and his later system involved an infrared switch that detected cheek twitches, which allowed him to select words and letters as they scrolled by on screen. He typed at approximately 15 words a minute with the initial system and four words a minute with the latter system.

It made me wonder: What if Hawking had been born 40 years earlier, when such technology was not available? His brilliant mind and his contributions would be lost to the world. Technology really has been a blessing in disguise for him and many others like me who have no other avenue of communication.

I am constantly struck by the sheer willpower that would be required to control a dysfunctional body to get any sort of output, let alone at the quality he was able to produce.

“The human race was so puny compared to the universe that being disabled is not of much cosmic significance,” Hawking said in a Q&A session on his website.

That really helped put things in perspective for nonspeaking individuals like me. He literally reached out into the infinity of space in his field of cosmology.

As a nonspeaking individual, I experience every day how frustratingly slow it is to type with my sensorily dysregulated body. Math and science equations are especially hard, as I have to switch between a word processor and a math font software called MathType just to complete one problem.

I find it really confusing at times. It can be a lesson in frustration. A brilliant mind such as Hawking’s must have had thoughts churning out faster than the physical movement of his cheek muscle. To be able to achieve Hawking’s level of output through a communication device at the rate of just four words a minute is for me the epitome of perseverance, dedication and effort.

My mind was just boggled at the thought — this is the system he has used to write his books, create TV shows, give speeches, attend conferences and do his amazing scientific work. On TV shows, his voice output appeared to be smooth and fluent only because he had prepared a speech ahead of time. At live conferences, it would take him significantly longer to respond to a question.

Life is a challenge, and he met it full on.

He inspired differently abled and nonspeaking folks like me to aspire to reach beyond our bodily human limitations as well as to try to achieve much much more than the lowest expectations that society places on us.

While I greatly admire Hawking, his illness came about slowly with age, so he had time to establish his brilliance and intellect. Nonverbal individuals like me, on the other hand, struggle to prove our cognitive abilities as children with communication challenges.

Regardless, the fact that Hawking was able to accomplish so much despite his significant communication challenges encouraged me to think that perhaps nontraditional paths and careers are a possibility for nonspeaking and sensorily disorganized autistic individuals like me.

The lesson I took away from Hawking was that a life of meaning is one where you are productive and contribute to society in whatever small way you can.

Life is a challenge whether or not your physical body imposes limitations. But Hawking’s journey makes me feel like my own autism challenges are less of a limitation. He has inspired me to strive to do some good in my own small way.

Hari Srinivasan writes the Thursday column on his experience as an nonverbal autistic student. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @HariSri108.

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