I met Stephen Hawking three times in 33 years. The first time was in 1980 in Detroit, MI at Michigan State University. I was working for the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities. I was in Michigan on a diplomatic mission. Hawking was reviewing a text-to-speech communication product. I had not planned on meeting him, and he had not scheduled a meeting with me. We happened to be at the same meeting. We arrived at the same time. I recognized him immediately. He did not know me. I held the door opened while he and his personal care attendant went into the building,
When Hawking passed me, I let the door close and shouted, “Mr. Hawking. Mr. Hawking.”. His attendant stopped. I said, “Mr. Hawking, I am John Williams. I am the communications director for the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, the largest civil rights movement working on behalf of people with disabilities. I am pleased to meet you.”
Using his communications device, Hawking said. “Thank you. I am happy to meet you. Why are you here?”
“I have a meeting with John Eulenberg”Hawkins and his attendant laughed. Hawking’s attendant said “Stephen has a meeting with Doctor Eulenberg. We are late.”
We walked to the elevator and took it to the same floor. When we went into Eulenberg’s office we were told,” Mr. Hawking would be seen first” We waited for about 20 minutes. Hawking told me he was there to see a new communications device that Eulenberg had developed with Hawking in mind. While waiting we talked about his work. To the best of my memory, we did not talk about disability issues.
Hawking said goodbye when he went into his meeting. I was impressed by Hawking’s indomitable spirit in his battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). I knew he was the longest living person with ALS. He was 38-years old then. ALS is usually fatal after three years. Hawking survived it for 50 years.
The second time I met Stephen Hawking was in late November 2000. I was in England on business. I had been trying to get an interview with him for more than a year. He consented when he knew I would be in England. We met in his office at Cambridge.. He had a vague memory of our first meeting. Using his communications device, he answered my questions. I taped the interview. Most of it appears below.
Williams: My first question was, “What is your attitude regarding your disability?”
Hawkins: It is not my fault that I am disabled. It is not the world’s fault. I do not want anyone to pity me. I have a positive attitude and I must make the best of my situation that I find myself in. Even though I am physically disabled, I cannot afford to be psychologically disabled as well. Therefore I concentrate on activities in which my ALS is not a disability.”
Williams: Do you encourage people with disabilities to get involved with science?
Hawking: Yes. Definitely. Science is an excellent career for disabled people.
Hawking: Because the mind does most of the work. Even though most kinds of experimental work are probably ruled out for disabled people theoretical work is ideal. My disabilities have not been a significant handicap in my field, which is theoretical physics.
Williams: Why do you believe that ALS is not a handicap?
Hawking: I am a researcher. It’s what I love to do. My ALS shields me from lecturing and administrative work that I would otherwise have been involved in.
Williams: Do you consider yourself a role model for people with ALS?
Hawking smiling: Only if they apply themselves in their fields.
Williams: Who are your heroes?
Hawking: Einstein. Newton. Feynman. Galileo Galieli , Bohr and Curie.
Williams: All physicists.
Hawking nodded and attempted to smile.
Hawking told me as a young man he loved horseback riding and rowing. “However, athleticism was never his forté,” he said.
When the interview ended I promised to send him a copy of the article. I did. He responded with a phone call thanking me.
The third time I met Stephen Hawking was in 2012 in London. He was giving a talk on his book, A Brief History of Time. He did not recognize me. When I reminded him of where we met in 1999, he smiled. Using his synthesized voice product, he asked, “How are you?”
“I am well.” We chatted for about 10 minutes, and he had to go.
As he was leaving, I knew it was the last time I would see him alive. In my three brief meetings with Stephen Hawking he left me with the impression that he was a man of great humor and unique accomplishment. He was courageous and a knowledge seeker. He did what very few people with disabilities accomplished. His successes trumped his disability. When people heard his name, they thought of Hawking the genius physicist. His indomitable spirit took him to heights that no one dreamed possible. He dreamed the impossible dream and made it happened.
Meeting Hawking was one of the major highlights of my life. He inspired me. When I think of Stephen Hawking, I believe the song The impossible Dream was written with Hawking in mind. To me these lyrics echo Hawking’s life: To dream the impossible dream, To fight the unbeatable foe, To bear with unbearable sorrow, To run where the brave dare not go, …this is my quest to follow that star, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far.”
Hawking discovered the phenomenon known as Hawking radiation, where black holes leak energy and fade to nothing. He was renowned for his extraordinary capacity to visualize scientific solutions without calculation or experiment.
John m. Williams is a frequent contributor to Independence Today. He coined the phrase “assistive technology<” he="" can="" be="" reached="" at="" jwilliams="" atechnews="" com="" his="" div="">