If Stephen Hawking taught us anything, it’s that society shouldn’t underestimate disabled people like me

Every time I write on this subject some rube pops up on Twitter to argue that businesses have to make money. It’s about cost, innit. But they’re getting it all wrong

James Moore
Thursday 15 March 2018 12:42 GMT
Stephen Hawking had a long career at Cambridge University, and was one of the smartest men in the world
Stephen Hawking had a long career at Cambridge University, and was one of the smartest men in the world (AP)

Professor Stephen Hawking had a beautiful mind. It was a mind that not only enhanced humanity’s understanding of the universe, but was also capable of explaining it in a way the teeming mass of humanity could understand. The value of the latter should not be underestimated.

Hawking also demonstrated that disability is, and should be, an irrelevance when it comes to making a towering contribution, one that historians will likely be discussing for as long as there is a planet capable of supporting them (he regularly expressed concern over the latter, and with good reason).

Of course, beautiful minds, minds as profoundly gifted as Hawking’s was, tend to find their way.

Most of us don’t have beautiful minds. But we do have useful minds, minds that will never be discussed by historians but that have talent and ability and that are capable of making important contributions all the same.

Disability should be similarly irrelevant in our cases. Sadly, that isn’t always the way.

Consider the disability employment gap.

Scope, the charity, keeps an eye on this and tells me that 31.3 percentage points currently separate the rate of employment of people with disabilities in Britain when compared with their able bodied peers.

To make a contribution to society, or to a business, we have to overcome hurdles that ablebodied people don’t face.

You can start with the negative way in which society views impairments and the sometimes wilful lack of understanding that exists about them in society.

Every time I write on this subject some rube pops up on Twitter, or the comment boards, to argue that businesses have to make money, and public sector employers have limits upon how much of it that they can spend to deliver the services they are charged with providing.

It’s about cost, innit. They can’t afford to be worrying about incurring it to employ disabled people.

Stephen Hawking in quotes

This is despite studies that show that it is, in fact, highly cost effective. Disabled employees stick with their employers for longer, and take fewer sick days. If that seems counter intuitive, think about it for a moment: if you feel you have to work twice as hard to prove your value you’re highly unlikely to take a day off for, say, a cold.

It is a sad fact that, when it comes to disability, people remain wedded to a backwards looking view that the people that have them are either poor suffering little lambs, or super-duper inspirations (take note of some of the Paralympic commentary as well as the way Hawking’s disability has been discussed). Now would he like sugar with that?

These attitudes, unfortunately, feed through into the mentality of HR departments, to the interview panels they convene and to the recruiters they hire to formulate their shortlists.

Even Chancellor Philip Hammond, a man who ought to know better, fell into the trap when he declared before the hearing of a Parliamentary committee that an improvement in the rates of employment of disabled people helped to explain the failure to improve the UK economy’s dismal productivity.

Suffice it to say that the Treasury’s own figures failed to back up his assertion.

I’m sorely tempted, at this point, to make a comment about Hammond with regard to useful minds. The best of it is that he has one of the better ones to be found around the cabinet table. Small wonder that the gap is as wide as it is.

Britain is not a nation so flooded with talent that it can easily afford to put useful minds to waste. The way employers constantly bang on about skills gaps, and labour shortages, makes that clear. Yet it is doing so.

“We have a moral duty to remove the barriers to participation, and to invest sufficient funding and expertise to unlock the vast potential of people with disabilities,” Hawking said in the preface to the World Health Organisation’s World Report on Disability, published in 2011.

There has been a lot of frankly offensive guff talked about the Professor’s disability in the wake of his death. Offensive ablest guff about his “overcoming” it, and worse still.

The elimination of attitudes like that, such that useful minds and beautiful minds alike are able to flourish, regardless of any disability, would be a very worthy part of his gift to the world.

I fear we have a lot of work to do to realise that.

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