Disabled or Differently-abled?

by Edward Henkler on November 11, 2014

The November 2014 Smithsonian magazine includes an article entitled, Giant Steps, focused on innovation in prosthetic devices. My mind almost immediately thought of the disabled (US terminology) vs. differently-abled (global) terminology. I believe that few would argue that the term disabled tends to be disempowering, focused on things someone can’t do. Although blind, Erik Weihenmayer has climbed the world’s seven tallest mountains. I haven’t even climbed one of them; how about you? In September of this year, Erik and another blind kayaker, Lonnie Bedwell, kayaked 277 miles through the Grand Canyon….and you?  Then there’s Bradley Snyder, a Navy Lieutenant who lost his sight to an IED in Afghanistan in 2011. Undaunted, he won Gold and Silver medals in Swimming at the 2012 Paralympics in London.

Erik, Lonnie, and Bradley have been the exceptions in the past, folks unwilling to succumb to life’s challenges. That may change in the future. The Smithsonian article suggests that advances in prosthetics may someday make prosthetics a lifestyle choice. While I realize that can become a slippery slope, think about restoring quality of life and employability to an amputee. If they had a bit more than average capability, might that not be a nice tradeoff for what most of us would consider unimaginable…losing a limb? Might differently-abled someday represent someone with above-average capabilities, not someone with “disabilities”. Actually, it could be argued that individuals who are disabled may already have certain superior skills, especially when you consider certain intellectual “disabilities”. You can also argue that living as an individual with disabilities in a world of “temporarily normal people” forces you to be more creative and innovative just to accomplish routine tasks.

Differently-abled and prosthetics

The article features Hugh Herr, inventor of amazingly sophisticated prosthetics that are fundamentally changing the nature of what amputees can do. Hugh lost both legs to frostbite at the age of 17 during a mountaineering expedition. Rather than give up, he eventually earned a PhD in Biophysics from Harvard and completed postdoctoral work in biomechatronics at MIT. Using the prosthetics he created, he says that he is now a better mountain climber than he was before losing his legs.

I hear two messages:

Technological advances are changing our world in amazing ways. It’s a brave new world!

When life gets you down, remember that we all face challenges some worse than others – draw on the demonstrated courage of others and never give up!

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