Caroline Casey’s TED Talk on Looking Past Limits (Transcript)

In this TED talk, activist Caroline Casey challenges perceptions and asks us all to move beyond the limits we may think we have.

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Caroline Casey – Advocate for disabled people

Can any of you remember what you wanted to be when you were 17? Do you know what I wanted to be? I wanted to be a biker chick. I wanted to race cars, and I wanted to be a cowgirl, and I wanted to be Mowgli from “The Jungle Book.” Because they were all about being free, the wind in your hair — just to be free.

And on my 17th birthday, my parents, knowing how much I loved speed, gave me one driving lesson for my seventeenth birthday. Not that we could have afforded I drive, but to give me the dream of driving.

And on my 17th birthday, I accompanied my little sister in complete innocence, as I always had all my life — my visually impaired sister — to go to see an eye specialist. Because big sisters are always supposed to support their little sisters. And my little sister wanted to be a pilot — God help her.

So I used to get my eyes tested just for fun. And on my seventeenth birthday, after my fake eye exam, the eye specialist just noticed it happened to be my birthday. And he said, “So what are you going to do to celebrate?” And I took that driving lesson, and I said, “I’m going to learn how to drive.”

And then there was a silence — one of those awful silences when you know something’s wrong. And he turned to my mother, and he said, “You haven’t told her yet?” On my seventeenth birthday, as Janis Ian would best say, I learned the truth at 17. I am, and have been since birth, legally blind.

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And you know, how on earth did I get to 17 and not know that? Well, if anybody says country music isn’t powerful, let me tell you this: I got there because my father’s passion for Johnny Cash and a song, “A Boy Named Sue.” I’m the eldest of three. I was born in 1971. And very shortly after my birth, my parents found out I had a condition called ocular albinism. And what the hell does that mean to you?

So let me just tell you, the great part of all of this? I can’t see this clock and I can’t see the timing, so holy God, woohoo! I might buy some more time. But more importantly, let me tell you — I’m going to come up really close here. Don’t freak out, Pat. Hey. See this hand? Beyond this hand is a world of Vaseline. Every man in this room, even you, Steve, is George Clooney. And every woman, you are so beautiful. And when I want to look beautiful, I step three feet away from the mirror, and I don’t have to see these lines etched in my face from all the squinting I’ve done all my life from all the dark lights.

The really strange part is that, at three and a half, just before I was going to school, my parents made a bizarre, unusual and incredibly brave decision. No special needs schools. No labels. No limitations. My ability and my potential. And they decided to tell me that I could see. So just like Johnny Cash’s Sue, a boy given a girl’s name, I would grow up and learn from experience how to be tough and how to survive, when they were no longer there to protect me, or just take it all away.

But more significantly, they gave me the ability to believe, totally, to believe that I could. And so when I heard that eye specialist tell me all the things, a big fat “no,” everybody imagines I was devastated. And don’t get me wrong, because when I first heard it — aside from the fact that I thought he was insane — I got that thump in my chest, just that “huh?” But very quickly I recovered. It was like that. The first thing I thought about was my mom, who was crying over beside me. And I swear to God, I walked out of his office, “I will drive. I will drive. You’re mad. I’ll drive. I know I can drive.”

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And with the same dogged determination that my father had bred into me since I was such a child — he taught me how to sail, knowing I could never see where I was going, I could never see the shore, and I couldn’t see the sails, and I couldn’t see the destination. But he told me to believe and feel the wind in my face. And that wind in my face made me believe that he was mad and I would drive.

And for the next 11 years, I swore nobody would ever find out that I couldn’t see, because I didn’t want to be a failure, and I didn’t want to be weak. And I believed I could do it. So I rammed through life as only a Casey can do. And I was an archeologist, and then I broke things. And then I managed a restaurant, and then I slipped on things. And then I was a masseuse. And then I was a landscape gardener. And then I went to business school. And you know, disabled people are hugely educated. And then I went in and I got a global consulting job with Accenture. And they didn’t even know. And it’s extraordinary how far belief can take you.

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