A few years ago, I was in a food market in the town where I grew up in that red zone in northeastern Pennsylvania. And I was standing over a bushel of tomatoes. It was summertime: I had shorts on. I hear this guy, his voice behind me say, “Well, if it isn’t Aimee Mullins.”
And I turn around, and it’s this older man. I have no idea who he is. And I said, “I’m sorry, sir, have we met? I don’t remember meeting you.”
He said, “Well, you wouldn’t remember meeting me. I mean, when we met I was delivering you from your mother’s womb.”
Oh, that guy. And but of course, actually, it did click. This man was Dr. Kean, a man that I had only known about through my mother’s stories of that day, because, of course, typical fashion, I arrived late for my birthday by two weeks.
And so my mother’s prenatal physician had gone on vacation, so the man who delivered me was a complete stranger to my parents. And because I was born without the fibula bones, and had feet turned in, and a few toes in this foot and a few toes in that, he had to be the bearer — this stranger had to be the bearer of bad news.
He said to me, “I had to give this prognosis to your parents that you would never walk, and you would never have the kind of mobility that other kids have or any kind of life of independence, and you’ve been making liar out of me ever since.”
The extraordinary thing is that he said he had saved newspaper clippings throughout my whole childhood, whether winning a second grade spelling bee, marching with the Girl Scouts, you know, the Halloween parade, winning my college scholarship, or any of my sports victories, and he was using it, and integrating it into teaching resident students, med students from Hahnemann Medical School and Hershey Medical School.
And he called this part of the course the X Factor, the potential of the human will. No prognosis can account for how powerful this could be as a determinant in the quality of someone’s life.
And Dr. Kean went on to tell me, he said, “In my experience, unless repeatedly told otherwise, and even if given a modicum of support, if left to their own devices, a child will achieve.”
See, Dr. Kean made that shift in thinking. He understood that there’s a difference between the medical condition and what someone might do with it.
And there’s been a shift in my thinking over time, in that, if you had asked me at 15 years old, if I would have traded prosthetics for flesh-and-bone legs, I wouldn’t have hesitated for a second. I aspired to that kind of normalcy back then.
But if you ask me today, I’m not so sure. And it’s because of the experiences I’ve had with them, not in spite of the experiences I’ve had with them. And perhaps this shift in me has happened because I’ve been exposed to more people who have opened doors for me than those who have put lids and cast shadows on me.
See, all you really need is one person to show you the epiphany of your own power, and you’re off. If you can hand somebody the key to their own power — the human spirit is so receptive — if you can do that and open a door for someone at a crucial moment, you are educating them in the best sense.
You’re teaching them to open doors for themselves. In fact, the exact meaning of the word “educate” comes from the root word “educe.” It means “to bring forth what is within, to bring out potential.”
So again, which potential do we want to bring out? There was a case study done in 1960s Britain, when they were moving from grammar schools to comprehensive schools. It’s called the streaming trials. We call it “tracking” here in the States.
It’s separating students from A, B, C, D and so on. And the “A students” get the tougher curriculum, the best teachers, etc. Well, they took, over a three-month period, D-level students, gave them A’s, told them they were “A’s,” told them they were bright, and at the end of this three-month period, they were performing at A-level.
And, of course, the heartbreaking, flip side of this study, is that they took the “A students” and told them they were “D’s.” And that’s what happened at the end of that three-month period. Those who were still around in school, besides the people who had dropped out.
A crucial part of this case study was that the teachers were duped too. The teachers didn’t know a switch had been made. They were simply told, “These are the ‘A-students,’ these are the ‘D-students.'” And that’s how they went about teaching them and treating them.
So, I think that the only true disability is a crushed spirit, a spirit that’s been crushed doesn’t have hope, it doesn’t see beauty, it no longer has our natural, childlike curiosity and our innate ability to imagine.
If instead, we can bolster a human spirit to keep hope, to see beauty in themselves and others, to be curious and imaginative, then we are truly using our power well.
When a spirit has those qualities, we are able to create new realities and new ways of being.
I’d like to leave you with a poem by a fourteenth-century Persian poet named Hafiz that my friend, Jacques Dembois told me about, and the poem is called “The God Who Only Knows Four Words”: