The Opportunity of Adversity: Aimee Mullins (Full Transcript)

Aimee Mullins at TED Talks

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.”

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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.”

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