Reflections on the extraordinary life of Stephen Hawking have been filling the internet at news of his passing. His life and work changed the way we view disability.
He viewed his diagnosis of ALS at age 22 as, “A rare opportunity to … live the life of the mind.” Even though his physicians predicted he had only a few years, he went on to have a career that stretched more than 50 years. He lived to the age of 76.
An inspiration for others
Hawking did not focus on the things that his disability kept him from doing. While confined to a wheelchair, he drove it around fast. He married, divorced and traveled the world – all things people with disabilities may not have been encouraged or even allowed to do in the past.
He was a hero showing it was possible to succeed with a disability. It was not despite of, or because of, his disability was a nonissue. Talking through a computer has even come to be associated with genius.
For a generation of children struggling to understand what their future might look like after a diagnosis of cerebral palsy or a progressive illness, he was a role model. People living with disability could accomplish almost anything, being different could be celebrated.
Planning for future resources and support
Another important lesson is that predictions about life span are not always correct. With this in mind, if you have a loved one with special needs, you need to plan with the expectation they will also live into their 70s.
And part of the reason Hawking was able to accomplish what he did was because of his loving family. They put in place resources that ensured he had access to Augmentative/Alternative Communication devices and a wheelchair that allowed him to drive fast.
Any gifting strategy for a loved one with special needs requires careful planning. For example, the overlapping systems of Colorado and federal benefits often come with different income and asset restrictions. New resources are also becoming available, such as ABLE accounts that allow those with disabilities a bit more control over their resources.
The example that Hawking left should encourage anyone living with a disability or family providing the support structure. He said, “Because every day could be my last, I have developed a desire to make the most of each and every minute (emphasis added).” We can all follow this example, because frankly no one is guaranteed tomorrow.