“My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically.”
~ Stephen Hawking
Born in 1942 and suffering from early onset ALS, English scientist and author, Stephen Hawking, has gradually become paralyzed over the years. Today, he speaks with the help of a device attached to his cheek muscle. The disease, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, began to manifest itself during his university years, but it did not stop him from becoming one of the world’s most renowned cosmologists. He described himself as both determined and obstinate while he doggedly struggled to maintain a normal life as the disease worsened. He became a popular scientific writer with his best-selling book, A Brief History Of Time.
At first, when I read this quote, I thought to myself that I don’t need to read this because I’m not disabled! Then I thought again, and reread Hawking’s words once more. The part that stopped me in my tracks was his words: “Don’t be disabled in spirit…” All of us can be disabled in spirit. As that realization sunk in, I thought about how utterly tragic that would be! What a horrible thing it would be to be of sound mind and body, but be immobilized in some way because you are disabled in spirit. I realize that Hawking was speaking these words to those with physical disabilities, but I believe his counsel applies to all of us.
How might I be disabled in spirit? If I am unable to pursue a dream or a goal because I fear failure, then I am disabled. Fear can be a debilitating thing and no one is immune. For those that we call brave, are the people who refuse to let their fear take over. They are determined, so despite the acute anxiety, they reach back and find the courage to act in spite of the terror. This is no mean feat. It takes a great deal of strength to face down our fear – especially if we’re facing mortal danger. However, if I give fear permission to control me, my spirit is disabled and I will fail – or worse.
If I am suffering from a serious lack of confidence, I won’t even try to achieve my potential, and again, I am disabled. I think many of us question our own abilities from time to time. How often have we thought, or even said out loud, that we could never do something. Yet, we see people around us with confidence to burn. Confidence does not come easily to me and I don’t know why. However, my life experience has taught me that I am capable of learning new things when I apply myself and don’t allow myself to be deterred by a lack of confidence. In other words, I need to sit myself down and have that talk. That puts my brain in the driver’s seat and the reluctant feelings in the trunk – locked up!
If I am lazy and detest having to work hard to achieve something in life, then my spirit is crippling me. I thank God that I’m not a lazy person. I find it difficult to sit still for very long without being engaged in something. But I know people who are as lazy as the day is long. The concept of a work ethic is totally alien to them. I think to myself that their life must be extremely boring. I have always felt challenged by work – always looking for better, more efficient ways to complete a task. I’m convinced that it is that very feeling that is responsible for the fact that, in my sixth decade, I’m always open to new learning. So, my life seems constantly fresh.
And if I’m overcome by melancholy and refuse to try to live my life as I should, my spirit is holding me hostage. I have a close friend who lectures me about letting someone else have the ability to make me sad or depressed. Why would I allow another person to have that kind of power over me? I don’t have a good answer for that, and I know I’ll struggle with that issue into the foreseeable future. Fortunately, when I’m feeling this way, it does not paralyze me into inaction. I often find it therapeutic to lose myself in some kind of task – preferably an activity that requires mental stimulation. It gives me respite.
When I think of the physically disabled, I think first of my wife. Anne was born with 75% hearing loss, which, over the years has degenerated to a whopping 99.9% loss. An extremely powerful hearing aid in her right ear allows her 10% hearing capacity. Hawking advises a disabled person to turn their focus away from what they are unable to do and focus instead on what they can do! Anne went to the same schools as the hearing children (without the technology or special programs schools have now) and finished with a Bachelor degree in English from the University of Waterloo. She refused to learn sign language because she wanted to communicate with everyone. She learned to read lips and took elocution lessons to speak clearly. She took piano lessons and achieved her Grade 8 piano certificate. The Ontario government refused to allow her entrance to a faculty of education to earn her teacher’s certificate. So, she went to work in an insurance company, earned her insurance degree and then began to teach those same courses. In 2014, she was acclaimed as Teacher Of The Year by the Ontario Insurance Institute.
My point is that her life is a living testament to this quote by Stephen Hawking! All her life, she exploded into action every time someone told her that she couldn’t do something because of her disability. She proved them wrong every time. She has courage to burn and an extremely strong work ethic. So if Anne can achieve what she has in life with next to no hearing, and Stephen Hawking can continue his scientific work despite his debilitating disease, what excuse do any of us able-bodied persons have for not working hard to achieve our goals and live well?