Yesterday, through the miracle of the internet, I had the opportunity to watch a presentation by Aimee Mullins, a Paralympic athlete who competes in running and jumping events in spite of the fact that she wears two prosthetic legs.  I remember seeing her run several years ago when my granddaughter was part of a kids’ race in Allentown — Aimee’s hometown.  Unless you looked closely, it was hard to see anything about her beyond her enthusiastic support of the program for young runners.  The video she presented to TED (www.ted.com) offers her unique view of being disabled.

Ms. Mullins took the podium to speak to her audience about being disabled.  As the mother of several kids with learning disabilities and grandmother of a princess with physical ones, I was more than interested in what she had to say.  I must say that I left with a new perspective, and I thank Ms. Aimee Mullins for finding the words that help me to express my own feelings on the subject.

She began by projecting and reading the thesaurus entry for the adjective,”disabled.”  I must say that it was shocking to be treated to such a negative and hopeless list of words, especially when they were coming from the mouth of someone intelligent, ambitious, successful — all the things those words were not.  I guess it’s not enough to face physical and emotional challenges when you have a difference that sets you apart from the majority of people.  I pictured Aimee Mullins and my kids and my beautiful little Cheyenne climbing a mountain made up of all those adjectives and struggling not to fall as the letters shifted under their feet.  It is said that what we think becomes what we say and what we say becomes what we believe and what we believe becomes what we do.  Wow, I thought, I don’t want to be thinking this list of words when I see someone who is somehow different.  How do we stop this subtle but powerful and prejudicial view from placing yet another roadblock in the way of someone who is intelligent and ambitious and successful and loving and perfect in her own way?

As a parent of kids whose disabilities are not apparent to the naked eye, I’ve learned to see my children not as disabled but as “differently” able.  They use a different thought sequence to arrive at the answer to a question.  They may use audio books when there is a lot of reading to do — not because they are unable to read, and not because they are lazy, but because the way they read takes longer than it takes their non-disabled peers — and they refuse to be left behind.  There are many people who have difficulty understanding that the accommodations that allow my kids to compete and to achieve are not letting them cheat their way through learning and life.  I am sad for those who resist allowing someone who is differently able the chance to play on a level playing field.

Later in her talk, Ms. Mullins displayed another thesaurus page — this one for the verb, “disable.”  Here was the moment of realization, because it showed her audience the list of all the things we DO that disable something — or someone.  Among the words on this list are words like “mangle,” “debilitate,” “undermine,” “weaken,” and “put out of action.”  Stunning, isn’t it?  Is this what we do when we attach our thoughts to the words that become beliefs and then become our reality?  Is this what we want to say to a child who is differently able?

I think it’s high time that we increase our awareness so that we make it our goal to take the “diss” out of disability.  I’ve learned from the younger generation that when you “diss” someone you hold them in contempt, you shun them, you turn your back on them.  Is this the way we sometimes treat a person who looks different or speaks differently or maybe uses assistive devices for mobility or communication?    Aimee Mullins speaks fondly of a doctor who challenged her to break the elastic bands she used in physical therapy as a child.  She credits him with helping her find her own power — her own ability.  The results are a matter of record.

Each of us seeks to find our own unique path through life where we can utilize the things about us that make us different — that let us stand out from the crowd.  Why should we assume that a person’s different appearance is the only thing that makes her different and unique and special?  Let’s knock down that mountain of adjectives and replace them with the ones that truly define the people we meet — that speaks to the music of their souls rather than the condition of their bodies.  Let’s throw away those verbs that inflict inaccurate messages on people when we are unable to see beyond their exterior to the beauty that truly defines them.

Thank you, Aimee Mullins, for a view from the inside that helps us all to grow a little in our understanding.  And thank you to Aimee’s doctor who had expectations of strength, achievement, and success for a little girl who you knew would face — and overcome — adversity.

What adjectives will you add to your list today?  What verbs will you use when you take action and help another find her own power?

To see Aimee’s talk, click on the link below:

http://www.ted.com/talks/aimee_mullins_the_opportunity_of_adversity.html