I went to see The Theory of Everything this week, a film about the physicist Stephen Hawking and his relationship with his wife Jane. Hawking is diagnosed with Motor Neurone disease at the beginning of the film and becomes progressively more physically disabled just as his scientific career is taking off.
It is brilliant. Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking is extraordinary and his portrayal of encroaching disability is utterly convincing. Many aspects of his life are common to any physically disabled person but his experience is particularly relevant for people whose intelligence and cognition are unaffected.
It is a salutory reminder of why some people in the disabled movement use the phrase ‘not yet disabled’ to describe able-bodied people. We are all just one diagnosis away from being disabled.
How Hawking’s increasingly weak and uncooperative body affects his life and his family are portrayed well and are familiar, hence why I spent a bit of time weeping in to my sweets (£8.47 worth of pick-a-mix to be precise. I KNOW, it’s a reaction against never being allowed sweets as a child).
There are obvious differences between a genius physicist losing motor function and a small boy being born with brain injury that leaves him physically disabled. Ben is actually very interested in space, but let’s all agree he hasn’t yet written a cosmic book that has sold 9 million copies.
But there are similarities, so in the manner of a Buzzfeed article, here is a list of 12 thoughts about being (or caring for someone who is) physically disabled prompted by The Theory of Everything:
- Physical disability can be a bit shit, and everything would be easier for Stephen Hawking and for Ben if they weren’t disabled. This is very sad, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sadness, but resist because…
- It’s possible to live a good and full and useful life if you are disabled. This may mean you redefine Time or it may mean something less ambitious, but it can be a life well lived.
- It’s not necessarily that easy for the family members who surround a disabled person (Hawking was keener on physics than he was on making things easy for his wife) but people will do a lot for those they love, and will do it happily (until they, like Stephen, divorce you for their nurse. Let’s brush over that for now).
- Kids and siblings are great. They tend to be cheerful and accepting of disabled people and like riding on wheelchairs.
- Male carers or helpers are really useful – physical strength is hugely valuable if someone’s body doesn’t work very well. Such strength can enable things to happen, such as overcoming the fact that…
- Wheelchairs and beaches are inherently incompatible.
- Working with a good speech and language therapist can make all the difference.
- It’s all about communication. It is totally crucial to find the right system of communication, find the right person to make it work, and make sure it keeps working.
- Avoid stairs. If that means having a bed in your kitchen, so be it.
- Get help, from friends, family, volunteers. Employ people if you can.
- If you’re the carer for a disabled person, don’t lose yourself. Jane Hawking’s love of Iberian poetry was subsumed by Stephen’s obsession with black holes and his refusal to allow others to help. It needn’t have been that way.
- Felicity Jones, who plays Jane Hawking, looks 15 years old at the beginning of the film, and about 18 years old at the end when apparently 30 years have gone by. Perhaps caring for a disabled person bestows some magical anti-ageing properties? I’ll come back to you on this.