Dancing with adversity

Disable (verb): To crush a spirit; to withdraw hope; to deflate curiosity; to promote an inability to see beauty; to deprive of imagination; to make abject.

Ant: To make poss-able.

*from Aimee Mullins New (and Better) Thesaurus

About 2 years ago, I wrote this post which was inspired by an incredible young woman named Aimee Mullins and her TED talk about The Opportunity of Adversity. I am re-posting it from its original home and have made it more relevant to my current story. 

Aimee Mullins was born without shinbones and has lived her life as a double amputee. But she isn’t disabled. She is an athlete, model, actor and activist for women, sports and the next generation of prosthesis. But she doesn’t believe in “overcoming” adversity either – as though what’s on the other side of the adversity is the achievement. Interestingly, Aimee believes it is because of challenging experiences not despite them, that we shine.

For two decades, I have pondered the term “disabled” and how this label has been used. Awhile back, I learned that during Nazi Germany the gas chamber that was later used to fulfill the horrors of genocide, was first invented to kill children who were marked as imperfect, not normal, and disabled.

I was 10 years old when I first got a real taste of what the word “disabled” means to most people. It was at that point in my life that my then 2 year old brother – Khorie – was diagnosed with a 90% hearing loss. By any colloquial or medical definition, he would have been considered “disabled” – someone who either needed “fixing” or would become part of a cohort of kids who went to “special” schools leading “special” lives segregated from the rest of our society. But he is not disabled. He is just deaf.

At the age of 19, Khorie graduated high school from a good old “regular” Canadian public school with the support of a full-time interpreter and the outcome of above “average” marks. He studied graphic arts, computer media and pre-calculus. He played peewee softball, dabbled in other types of recreation and later on discovered a love for tennis. For the majority of his life, he has communicated in two of Canada’s official languages: English and American Sign Language (ASL). He was the first high school student in Manitoba to be recognized with a United Nations Association of Canada Award in the ASL category at the annual public speaking competition. He is an emerging game developer and lyricist. He has played electric guitar, bass guitar, and somewhere along the way taught himself a bit of piano. He sings too.  So how did a young deaf man do all of these things? With the aid of his superpower, of course.

Aimee Mullins called it the X factor. You might call it: HUMAN WILL.

I was struck by how Aimee’s words were not only applicable to the medical community and thought leaders attending TED MED (October 2009) but also to those of us who are part of a movement to dance with adversity.

In Aimee’s talk, she references Charles Darwin and the underlying principle of his revolutionary work on evolution. It isn’t necessarily the strongest of the species that will survive – nor the fastest or the smartest. It is the most adaptable to change. I urge leaders in the business, citizen and public sectors to take those words to heart.  Internalize them. If you can do that, then I promise you I will show up and do my part.

Aimee believes that adversity is a part of life – not an obstacle to get around. She believes that through conflict comes transformation. Possibility is the order of the day – not disability. This perspective, if applied to our greatest challenges, is decidedly different. We don’t look at budget cuts and dissent as opportunities, do we? We view them as crippling. Why? Because they make it impossible to continue with business as usual. But what if these challenging moments could be viewed as transformative opportunities to awaken, raise the bar and propel us toward evolution as a community?

This past week I learned that those among us who cling so tightly to the status quo will never be able to evolve. These individuals are doomed to become the dinosaurs of our era. Crushed of spirit. Hopeless. Deprived of imagination. Abject. For all intents and purposes – disabled.

Evolution of our economies, societies, institutions, and so on is not easy as pie. I missed that day in science class when we were all led to believe that evolution is quaint and seamless rather than a whole lot of trial and error to become something more exquisite and capable. Poor Charles Darwin. How could he get it so wrong? Oh, that’s right. He didn’t.

We are junkies of consensus-based decision making and unanimous votes. We are victims of group think. We’ve got our deep thoughts, deep fried food and deep ecology but what ever happened to deep democracy?  Rather than embracing conflicting views toward the best decisions, we settle for the lowest common denominator. Instead of engaging in the  incredibly grueling yet rewarding process of physically, mentally, institutionally adapting to a new world, we crawl in the other direction. We  SIDESTEP the tough discussions and the nitty gritty debates when a new world requires that we DANCE with the challenge of both.

In business, public and social sectors, much like everyday life, we have the opportunity to dance with adversity and through conflict – not despite it – we can transform and truly shine.

I am prepared to DANCE. Are you?

Photo of: Khorie circa 1991 taken by my parents on the front steps of my childhood home.


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