Stephen Hawking: Power Chair Scientist
Perhaps the most famous powerchair scientist of all time is Stephen Hawking. Stephen is not alone among famous scientists in having a disability. Einstein had a learning disability and could not read until he was three years old, may have been dyslexic and probably had Aspergs syndrome, a form of autism, while both Pythagaurus and Isaac Newton had epilepsy. Many other scientists had milder forms of disability. Stepehn Hawking, however, is probably the most famous of scientists, well known for overcoming his disability to both come up with groundbreaking scientific theoris and to write best selling books.
Stephen's life, disability and mobility aids
Stephen Hawing was born in London in 1942. Despite his father's wish that he study medicine, he enrolled in University College, Oxford, where he studied Physics as his preferred subject, mathematics, was not available. During his university years he enjoyed sport for the first time, when he took up coxing and rowing. However, during his third year at Oxford he noticed that he was starting to get clumsier, which lead him to have a couple of falls.
After graduating with a first class honors degree in science Stephen went on to Cambridge to do research in Cosmology. According to Stephen, it was while he was in Camridge that his father noticed that he was clumsy and took him to the family doctor. There followed a battery of tests, which included sticking electrodes into his arms and watching radioactive fluid go up and down his spine. During this time Stephen also fell down a flight of stairs, hitting his head and knocking himself unconscious. This incident lead him to take the Mensa test, as he worried that his intellectual capabilties might have been affected.
At the age of 21 Stephen was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Schlerosis, a form of Motor Neuroene Disease, and given three years to live. Stephen reports that he was bored and depressed before he was diagnosed with the illness, and being diagnosed with a terminal illness made him realise that there was so much worth living for.
Fortunately, the disease has progressed much slower than usual. However, as a result Stephen has gradually lost the use of first his limbs and then, after a trachetomy operation following pneumoia, his speech.
Immediately after the operation Stephen was only able to communicate by spelling out letters one at a time. He did this by raising or lowering his eyebrows when someone held out a spelling card. Fortunately, a Californian computer expert called Waltz Waldoz sent Stephen a computer program called the Equalizer. This allows Stephen to communicate by selecting words from a series of menus on a screen. The system was controlled by a switch that could be operated by simple head or eye movement. Later on a small portable computer and speech synthesizer was fixed to Hawking's wheelchair (currently a Pride power chair).
Stephen is now able to control not the just the movement of his power chair but many of the electronic devices in his house such as the television, video recorder and music centre via a programmable infra-red controller attached to the computer system on his chair. In addition, he has a remote control device which allows him to operate doors and lights both at home and at work.
Despite his disability, Stephen Hawking has made a huge number of discoveries and achievements, from new theories regarding black holes, writing best selling books to floating in zero gravity and appearing in episodes of the Simpsons (where it was revealed that his power chair could fly!) He was also elected one of the youngest fellows of the Royal Society of London in 1974 and is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the UK university, a post once held by Sir Isaac Newton.
His thoughts on his disability
"I guess we're all pretty disabled on the cosmic scale. What difference is a few muscles more or less? Disability does not really affect my consciousness. I see it as an inconvenience like color blindness." (Qoute from "An Encounter with Stephen Hawking" - see links and resources below.)