In early 1963, just shy of his 21st birthday, British physicist Stephen W. Hawking was diagnosed with a motor neuron disease, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease and he was not expected to live more than two years.
The condition disabled his muscles which caused difficulty in breathing and swallowing. At some point while in hospital, Hawking contracted severe pneumonia that made him so ill that doctors recommended stopping life support but were only stopped by his wife.
As the disease continued to spread, Hawking became less mobile and began using a wheelchair. In addition, talking grew more challenging and, in 1985, he had a total loss of speech. He was only helped by a speech-generating device that served as his electronic voice.
With all the odds stacked against him, Hawking went on to become one of the most recognisable scientists of our age. He is famously remembered for his contribution in the fields of cosmology, gravitation, quantum theory related to black hole, and information theory. And his genre-defining book, A Brief History of Time, has sold more than 10 million copies since its publication in 1988.
By the time of his death in 2018 (aged 76 years), Hawking held an iconic status globally. He appeared on popular TV shows like Star Trek, The Simpsons, and The Big Bang Theory. Actor Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar award for his portrayal of Hawking in the film, The Theory of Everything.
The story of Stephen Hawking is both fascinating and breathtaking but you may be surprised to find that many other great people in history also had some form of disabilities. For instance: Albert Einstein and George Washington had a learning disability. Beethoven was deaf; as was Thomas Edison. Charles Dickens was lame. Gordon Brown and Harriet Tubman both had visual impairments.
But what gave Stephen Hawking and those other great individuals the stamina to overcome their setbacks and become successful? Well, I believe that they confronted their deepest fears through self-belief and determination. They had an inner dream that lit a fire which could not be extinguished.
In the course of our daily work at Every Child Ministries (An NGO), we interact with many persons with disabilities (PWDs), especially children, and we have progressively observed that inferiority complex coupled with self-pity and low self-esteem describes a major part of their life struggles. It is these sorts of attitudes that create barriers for most PWDs.
In all fairness, it is important to appreciate that PWDs continue to be among the most marginalised and vulnerable group of persons in Uganda. They are abused, exploited and excluded by the societies in which they live, in total contravention of their human rights.
Having a positive attitude may not necessarily resolve these challenges, but may help a PWD cope more easily with the daily life struggles while also bringing constructive changes into one’s life. Remember, one of the miracles Jesus most commonly performed while on earth was the healing of blind people. But the scriptures indicate that these people had a strong spiritual attitude of faith and belief.
Therefore, as we continue with the fight towards ending discrimination against PWDs, it is key that particular attention is given towards attitudinal change. Disability should not be a barrier to achieving incredible things.
Mr Brian Mukalazi is the country director of Every Child Ministries Uganda.