The Power of Prime

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From Disabled to Super-Abled

Redefining what it means to be physically challenged and human

I was recently invited by the Huffington Post (for whom I blog weekly) to write a post about a TED talk by Aimee Mullins, a double-amputee who has received world-wide acclaim as an athlete, actress, model, inspirational speaker, and an innovator for the physically challenged. How we look at so-called disabled people is certainly changing these days and I was inspired to offer my perspective. Not long ago, I wrote another post in response to another TED talk by another physically challenged person and the focus of that post was on how disabled people are much more like us “normal” folk than we realize. But this post has a decidedly different tack to it.

In past generations, when we looked at someone with a physical disability, we felt many different emotions including sympathy, revulsion, fear, embarrassment, or “there but by the grace of God go I.” The old reaction of seeing disabled people participate in sports included “Good for them!” and “They’re not letting a little thing like a missing limb squash their dreams.”

But, thanks to incredible developments in the neurosciences and prosthetic technology, what used to mean “not able” has morphed, in many cases, into being “super able.”

Now, we’re seeing these physically challenged people as challenging not just themselves, but all of the able-bodied athletes out there. This shift seems to have reached our collective psyches with Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee sprinter who raced against able-bodied athletes and competed in the 2012 Olympics. A German long jumper, Markus Rehm, who won his nation’s able-bodied national long-jump championship, is now in the news for wanting to compete in the European Track & Field Championships, but is being denied because—yes, you hear me right!—he may have an unfair advantage being disabled.

All of a sudden, being disabled is akin to taking performance-enhancing drugs. We able-bodied people have gone from sympathetic to threatened by these supposedly less-able athletes.

Consider the possibilities. Tommy John surgery will seem so 20th century. Instead of replacing your shoulder, knee, or hip, since you’re going to be on the operating table anyway, why not just lop the whole darned thing off and get a brand-spanking-new superhuman prosthesis. And don’t even get me started when the already out of control youth-sports juggernaut and its “I’ll do anything to make my kid an Olympic champion” parenting culture meets the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman (talk about visionary TV shows!).

And being disabled isn’t just about surpassing normal people athletically. We normal folk are stuck with the bodies we have. People like Aimee Mullin can design their bodies as they wish. You can decide what kind of legs you want: muscular, thin, or bow-legged? I’ve got a pair of legs for that!

If you’re a fashionista, such possibilities! You could accessorize your prosthetic limbs as Aimee Mullins does. Imagine a different set of legs or arms for casual, business, or formal events. Different shapes, sizes, colors, and designs to fit your mood or your lifestyle. You can even adjust your height (Aimee Mullins does) depending on the height of who you are dating (what would you say on those dating websites when asked for your height?).

Think of the future when many humans become some version of the the cyborgs of literature, film, and television (think Robocop, but, hopefully more huggable). Might previously labeled able-bodied humans become the physically challenged subset of our population and deserving of the sympathy of the new generations of technologically enhanced humans? Will the Olympics have two divisions: cyborgs and humans? Will the cyborgs try to cheat by saying they’re plain humans to win medals? That look into my crystal ball is a bit frightening, yet not so far fetched.

But let’s not get too carried away with the benefits of being physically challenged. This line of thinking works great if you’re just missing a limb or two. But not everyone with a disability can compete in the Olympics (or Paralympics). For many, life is a daily struggle. It’s a whole other story if you have, for example, a spinal injury causing you partial or total paralysis or you have brain damage or some other disability for which technological solutions may be in the works, but are still only a distant, science-fiction reality.

I think there’s little doubt that cyborg-like enhancements are an inevitable part of the future of humankind. Replacing body parts will become as commonplace as replacing parts on your automobile and enable us to live longer, more active lives.

Like the current communication technology upheaval, the prosthetic revolution will challenge us in so many ways. These advancements will alter the way we define what it means to be a “normal” human being and, in fact, cause us to change the way we think about what it means to be human: Is being human corporeal, intellectual, spiritual?

Though it will be an exciting time in the ongoing story of humanity, a big part of me is happy that I’ll be long dead before we have to face such complex questions. Unless, of course, science finds a way to upload my brain content to a 100% synthetic being. Will I still be human then? I just can’t go there now.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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