Aimee Mullins – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT
I’d like to share with you a discovery that I made a few months ago while writing an article for Italian Wired.
I always keep my thesaurus handy whenever I’m writing anything. But I’d already finished editing the piece, and I realized that I had never once in my life looked up the word “disabled” to see what I’d find.
Let me read you the entry. “Disabled, adjective: crippled, helpless, useless, wrecked, stalled, maimed, wounded, mangled, lame, mutilated, run-down, worn-out, weakened, impotent, castrated, paralyzed, handicapped, senile, decrepit, laid-up, done-up, done-for, done-in cracked-up, counted-out; see also hurt, useless and weak. Antonyms, healthy, strong, capable.”
I was reading this list out loud to a friend and at first was laughing, it was so ludicrous. But I’d just gotten past “mangled,” and my voice broke, and I had to stop and collect myself from the emotional shock and impact that the assault from these words unleashed.
You know, of course, this is my raggedy old thesaurus so I’m thinking this must be an ancient print date, right?
But, in fact, the print date was the early 1980s, when I would have been starting primary school and forming an understanding of myself outside the family unit and as related to the other kids and the world around me.
And, needless to say, thank God I wasn’t using a thesaurus back then. I mean, from this entry, it would seem that I was born into a world that perceived someone like me to have nothing positive whatsoever going for them, when in fact, today I’m celebrated for the opportunities and adventures my life has procured.
So, I immediately went to look up the 2009 online edition, expecting to find a revision worth noting.
Here’s the updated version of this entry. Unfortunately, it’s not much better. I find the last two words under “Near Antonyms,” particularly unsettling: “whole” and “wholesome.”
So, it’s not just about the words. It’s what we believe about people when we name them with these words. It’s about the values behind the words, and how we construct those values.
Our language affects our thinking and how we view the world and how we view other people. In fact, many ancient societies, including the Greeks and the Romans, believed that to utter a curse verbally was so powerful, because to say the thing out loud brought it into existence.
So, what reality do we want to call into existence: a person who is limited, or a person who’s empowered? By casually doing something as simple as naming a person, a child, we might be putting lids and casting shadows on their power.
Wouldn’t we want to open doors for them instead? One such person who opened doors for me was my childhood doctor at the A.I. duPont Institute in Wilmington, Delaware. His name was Dr. Pizzutillo, an Italian American, whose name, apparently, was too difficult for most Americans to pronounce, so he went by Dr. P.
And Dr. P always wore really colorful bow ties and had the very perfect disposition to work with children. I loved almost everything about my time spent at this hospital, with the exception of my physical therapy sessions.
I had to do what seemed like innumerable repetitions of exercises with these thick, elastic bands — different colors, you know — to help build up my leg muscles, and I hated these bands more than anything — I hated them, had names for them. I hated them.
And, you know, I was already bargaining, as a five year-old child, with Dr. P to try to get out of doing these exercises, unsuccessfully, of course.
And one day, he came in to my session — exhaustive and unforgiving, these sessions — and he said to me, “Wow! Aimee, you are such a strong and powerful little girl, I think you’re going to break one of those bands. When you do break it, I’m going to give you a hundred bucks.”
Now, of course, this was a simple ploy on Dr. P’s part to get me to do the exercises I didn’t want to do before the prospect of being the richest five-year-old in the second-floor ward.
But what he effectively did for me was reshape an awful daily occurrence into a new and promising experience for me. And I have to wonder today to what extent his vision and his declaration of me as a strong and powerful little girl shaped my own view of myself as an inherently strong, powerful and athletic person well into the future.
This is an example of how adults in positions of power can ignite the power of a child.
But, in the previous instances of those thesaurus entries, our language isn’t allowing us to evolve into the reality that we would all want, the possibility of an individual to see themselves as capable.
Our language hasn’t caught up with the changes in our society, many of which have been brought about by technology.
Certainly, from a medical standpoint, my legs, laser surgery for vision impairment, titanium knees and hip replacements for aging bodies that are allowing people to more fully engage with their abilities, and move beyond the limits that nature has imposed on them — not to mention social networking platforms allow people to self-identify, to claim their own descriptions of themselves, so they can go align with global groups of their own choosing.
So, perhaps technology is revealing more clearly to us now what has always been a truth: that everyone has something rare and powerful to offer our society, and that the human ability to adapt is our greatest asset.
The human ability to adapt, it’s an interesting thing, because people have continually wanted to talk to me about overcoming adversity, and I’m going to make an admission: This phrase never sat right with me.
And I always felt uneasy trying to answer people’s questions about it, and I think I’m starting to figure out why. Implicit in this phrase of “overcoming adversity” is the idea that success, or happiness, is about emerging on the other side of a challenging experience unscathed or unmarked by the experience, as if my successes in life have come about from an ability to sidestep or circumnavigate the presumed pitfalls of a life with prosthetics, or what other people perceive as my disability.
But, in fact, we are changed. We are marked, of course, by a challenge, whether physically, emotionally or both. And I’m going to suggest that this is a good thing.
Adversity isn’t an obstacle that we need to get around in order to resume living our life. It’s part of our life. And I tend to think of it like my shadow. Sometimes I see a lot of it, sometimes there’s very little, but it’s always with me.
And, certainly, I’m not trying to diminish the impact, the weight, of a person’s struggle. There is adversity and challenge in life, and it’s all very real and relative to every single person.
But the question isn’t whether or not you’re going to meet adversity, but how you’re going to meet it.
So, our responsibility is not simply shielding those we care for from adversity, but preparing them to meet it well. And we do a disservice to our kids when we make them feel that they’re not equipped to adapt.
There’s an important difference and distinction between the objective medical fact of my being an amputee and the subjective societal opinion of whether or not I’m disabled.
And, truthfully, the only real and consistent disability I’ve had to confront is the world ever thinking that I could be described by those definitions.
In our desire to protect those we care about by giving them the cold, hard truth about their medical prognosis, or, indeed, a prognosis on the expected quality of their life, we have to make sure that we don’t put the first brick in a wall that will actually disable someone.