Dr. Stephen Hawking: A Case Study on Using Technology to Communicate with the World

DO-IT Factsheet #370
http://www.washington.edu/doit/Faculty/articles?370

Background

Dr. Stephen Hawking was born in England in 1942 and lived a good portion of his life without a disability. He studied math and physics and earned a PhD in physics. While in graduate school, at age 21, Dr. Hawking was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), commonly referred to in the U.S. as Lou Gehrig’s disease. As ALS progresses, the degeneration of motor neurons in the brain interfere with messages to muscles in the body. Eventually, muscles atrophy and voluntary control of muscles is lost. People with ALS typically maintain intelligence, memory, and personality, even in late stages of the disease. Dr. Hawking became a professor at the University of Cambridge in England. Although his life was expected by some physicians to be short, he is still alive and lecturing today. He has published many articles and several books on theoretical physics and the Big Bang theory. His most popular book, A Brief History of Time, was published in 1988.

Access Issue

As a result of ALS Dr. Hawking must now receive assistance for most movement and he is unable to speak without the aid of a computer. This presents a problem because as a researcher and scientist Dr. Hawking is regularly asked to speak at meetings and conferences and must develop and publish new ideas to maintain a place in the forefront of academia.

Solution

Dr. Hawking uses assistive technology to compensate for mobility and speech difficulties. He has used a thumb switch and a blink-switch attached to his glasses to control his computer. By squeezing his cheek muscles and "blinking" an infra-red switch is activated and he is able to scan and select characters on the screen in order to compose speeches, surf the Internet, send e-mail and "speak" through a voice synthesizer.

Conclusions

Dr. Stephen Hawking continues to be active in his research and personal lives because he has developed effective strategies for personal care, speaking, writing, and research activities that compensate for functional limitations imposed by ALS. His experiences illustrate the following:

  1. People can acquire a disability status at any age, from birth to advanced years.
  2. Accommodations change over time for those with degenerative conditions.
  3. Assistive technology can compensate for limitations relative to mobility and speech.
  4. Having a disability does not exclude people from discovering and pursuing their passions in life.