Erin M. Kelly Headshot

More Than Meets the Eye: When Perception and Spirit Outweigh Disability

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Vernon Wiley via Getty Images
Erin M. Kelly Headshot

More Than Meets the Eye: When Perception and Spirit Outweigh Disability

Posted: Updated:

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

It's been said that perception is reality, that the hand is quicker than the eye. It's also been said that fear of the unknown can make one do things they never thought possible. Time and time again, we've put these theories to the absolute test. The results ultimately change the way we think and feel, and that's all the more reason to accept them as truth.

However, I think there's another part of this equation that's inadvertently overlooked. For a person with a disability, perception indeed equals reality, but it's their reality. Thus, the perception of that person created by those on the outside looking in often lead to assumptions that are inaccurate. It's a reality that's only truly shared and understood by the individual and those closest to them.

Emotion takes over because they struggle to find a way to help the outside world see something other than the obvious, or perhaps to help themselves make sense of their disability. Fear, along with every other emotion known to man, then becomes a product of determination.

I think there's a sense of need that comes with that as well--the need to put that bundle of emotion on display and let the world develop its own perspectives and opinions about it. It's an innate sense that often creeps to the surface of my conscience, having cerebral palsy.

In watching her TEDTalk video, I knew Sue Austin could relate to that feeling when she said, "When I asked people their associations of [my] wheelchair, they used words like 'limitation,' 'fear,' 'pity' and 'restriction.'"

Sue went on to say that she didn't start hearing those words until an "extended illness" forced her to look at life from an entirely different perspective. She also mentioned that she began looking at herself through the eyes of those who unassumingly labeled her without making an effort to understand why she was in a wheelchair. She mentions she became fully aware that she needed to create a "new reality" for herself.

In turn, her desire to literally "dive" in 2005 and make a change based on the way the world perceived her was the inspiration behind The Underwater Wheelchair. Watching Sue talk about her thought process in that video, and the way she speaks so eloquently about deep sea diving in her wheelchair, is beautiful in the most simple but profound way.

As a woman in a wheelchair myself, I couldn't help but to be mesmerized by this woman's courage and spirit to do something that could potentially put her life in danger. She alludes to the fact that her life was normal before her wheelchair became part of her reality. I watched and listened to that portion of the video very closely, because I couldn't relate to it.

I've been in a wheelchair since birth, so I've never felt the kind of freedom that Sue once felt. If I had, I think I'd be spending the rest of my life trying to regain something that was never in my grasp to begin with.

In fact, I took Sue's use of the phrase "joy and freedom" as a measure of perception--a perception that makes people in the power of perspective, to the extent where they feel the sudden need and urge to do something they've always been afraid to do.

By the same token, the footage of Sue "swimming" and floating so freely amongst starfish and coral reefs brought me back to my childhood, when I told my parents I needed "to do something dangerous."

At ten, eleven years old, "dangerous" to me meant driving my wheelchair to the top of my parents' driveway and coming down at full speed. I subconsciously knew there was a considerable risk that my breaks wouldn't kick in before I got to the bottom, but I wasn't doing it out of anger or spite due to the fact I had cerebral palsy. I was doing it because at the time, it was one of the few ways in which I was able to express that "joy and freedom" Sue refers to in her video.

That said, Sue's underwater adventures make my daredevil stunts seem like a walk in the park. I watched the video several times before writing this piece, even as I was writing it. A combination of fear and exhilaration ran through my body, because I know in my heart of hearts I could never even attempt to be--let alone breathe--underwater in my wheelchair.

After taking a few minutes to materialize what I saw, I realized I wasn't just entering this woman's world. I was witnessing her journey to personal freedom, captured in a brilliant, beautiful nine-minute video.

Even now, it's still difficult to put into words. I think the way the way the world--myself included--now perceives Sue is a testament to her mission to create a new reality not only for herself, but for the human race.

It's not magic, fate or even the urge to be first to break new ground. It's perception and the power we all have to change it--and if the hand is indeed quicker than eye, we can build a world of possibilities.

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