It was always obvious that the death of Stephen Hawking would be used to tell us how much better the NHS used to be. Because, you know, there are people out there who will tell us that the Sun rising in the east is proof of how much better the NHS used to be.
But kudos to Zoe Williams who manages to do this without quite grasping reality.
Instead, the question we should be asking in homage to this extraordinary man is what life would be like today for a 22-year-old, recently arriving at Cambridge for graduate studies, diagnosed with motor neurone disease.
He would still need a wheelchair, another postcode lottery: across the UK, a quarter of people referred to wheelchair services by a GP get no equipment at all. In some areas, three-quarters are offered nothing, and have a choice between crowdfunding their equipment and being bed-bound.
The thing being, Hawking was rather famous for insisting that, until absolutely and completely necessary, he refused to use a wheelchair:
Hawking was fiercely independent and unwilling to accept help or make concessions for his disabilities. He preferred to be regarded as “a scientist first, popular science writer second, and, in all the ways that matter, a normal human being with the same desires, drives, dreams, and ambitions as the next person.” His wife, Jane Hawking, later noted: “Some people would call it determination, some obstinacy. I’ve called it both at one time or another.” He required much persuasion to accept the use of a wheelchair at the end of the 1960s, but ultimately became notorious for the wildness of his wheelchair driving.
He started using a wheelchair some 3 or 4 years after gaining his PhD that is.
No, there is more:
During a visit to CERN on the border of France and Switzerland in mid-1985, Hawking contracted pneumonia, which in his condition was life-threatening; he was so ill that Jane was asked if life support should be terminated. She refused, but the consequence was a tracheotomy, which would require round-the-clock nursing care and remove what remained of his speech. The National Health Service was ready to pay for a nursing home, but Jane was determined that he would live at home. The cost of the care was funded by an American foundation. Nurses were hired for the three shifts required to provide the round-the-clock support he required.
It wasn’t that pre-austerity NHS which paid for his care either. Nor his computer voice:
Hawking, of course, needed more than a wheelchair; able to communicate using only the muscles of one cheek, he used a speech-generation device, which it is impossible to imagine as routine provision from a system with so little interest in what disabled people have to say.
Many of the things which Zoe is lauding the NHS for providing weren’t in fact provided by the NHS. Bit of a hole in the argument, isn’t it?