01/23/2014 05:33 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2014

Wheelchair Wisdom: The Power of Limits

Discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something different. -- Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, 1893-1996, Nobel prize winner

It has always fascinated me that creativity and positive thinking are often born out of limitation. When there is adversity, it seems, we humans have all the greater incentive to work out ingenious ways to overcome obstacles, protect ourselves from harm, and chart new territory. I've recently encountered someone who embodies that spirit of creativity overcoming adversity, Kevin McGuire, a wheelchair user who created AbleRoad.

Of course, we've had to overcome adversity since the beginning of human history. We've always been vulnerable, and there was a time long ago when we were ill equipped to defend ourselves from bears, wolves, and saber-toothed tigers. But we used our creative minds to survive. And we continue to do so. Now, with so many mechanical and human aids at our command, we have unheard of opportunities that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors.

So what makes a creative person tick? A creative person wants to know about all kinds of things -- ancient history, Impressionist paintings, the works of Plato or Rumi or Eckhart Tolle or Springsteen, flower arranging, the lyrics of an Elton John song, current food manufacturing techniques, Turner Movie Classics, accessibility issues (or lack of access to people with disabilities), the impact of technology, and the future of health care -- never knowing when these ideas might come together to form a new idea. It may happen six minutes later or six months or six years down the road. True creativity has no timeline.

It just may be that any limitation, in itself, is a springboard into creativity and abundance, just as our physical bodies are the springboard into the Spirit.

Before the onset of Multiple Sclerosis, I had a flourishing career as an artist. While that career was necessarily cut short, my love of art remained undiminished. But how could I practice my art? My right-hand tremor made it impossible to hold a paintbrush steady. There was nothing I could do, or change, that would allow me to paint the way I had before.

But I didn't give up. I was reminded me of Auguste Renoir who, because of crippling arthritis, strapped brushes to his hands. He had to paint with longer, more fluid strokes, but painting that way resulted in some of his best works. I also remembered Henri Matisse, who was confined to bed in his later life. Unable to work with paints any longer, instead he created huge, stunning compositions from colored papers that he cut out with scissors as he lay in bed.

As I thought about what I might do, how I could once again practice the art that I loved so much, the solutions of these artists made me think that what seemed impossible might in fact be possible. These artists, in fact, became my teachers, role models of the highest forms of creative thinking and transformation. Their example reminded me that I needed to change my attitude. Instead of dwelling on what I could no longer do, I had to explore the possible. It required a change in attitude, or outlook, which inspired me to explore how I could still paint! It was then I had a jolt of inspiration. Instead of trying to prevent my right hand from trembling, I began to use the trembling to create rhythmic strokes of color and movement, resulting in tender and sweet images that reminded me of beautiful Japanese calligraphic paintings.

The creative mind really does have the power to transform one thing into another. But too often, we become fraught with anxiety about our limitations. By changing perspectives, and playing with our knowledge and experience, we can make the ordinary extraordinary and the unusual commonplace.

The creative person, I've found, holds on to the faith that it will happen. Knowledge is the stuff from which new ideas are made, but knowledge alone won't make a person creative. I think we've all known people who knew lots of stuff but were unable to apply their knowledge in new ways. The real key to being creative lies in what you do with your knowledge. Creative thinking requires an attitude or outlook which allows you to search for ideas and manipulate your knowledge and experience.

Fortunately, there are unlimited examples of creative humans who applied their knowledge and ingenuity to the world around them. Johann Gutenberg, the creator of a printing press that utilized movable type, combined two previously unconnected items -- the wine press and the coin punch -- to create an unprecedented invention that would make printed books available to millions of people. The purpose of the coin punch was to leave an image on a small area such as a gold coin. The function of a wine press was to apply force over a large area in order to squeeze the juice out of grapes. Gutenberg asked himself, "What if I took a bunch of these coin punches and put them under the force of the wine press so that they left their images on paper?" The result was an invention that radically changed the history of civilization.

Today, the rewards of creative inventions are spilling over into every aspect of our lives. I could name scores of extraordinary thinkers, artists, and inventors who have made life easier for us all -- and, particularly for those with physical or mental limitations. Those creative people have opened doors for us both literally and figuratively. As I move about my house, answer messages, make calls, travel, read, and write, I am incredibly thankful to the remarkable individuals who dreamed of doors that would open automatically, computers that would respond to voice commands, motors that would propel wheelchairs, and the numerous other devices that would have been impossible to imagine even a few decades ago.

And the breakthroughs continue. I think of Kevin McGuire, who has been instrumental in the creation of AbleRoad. Kevin was inspired by his work with Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. AbleRoad is developing breakthrough technology and a website to assist people with disabilities (PWD). Through the AbleRoad website, people who use wheelchairs -- as well as those with medical issues or mobility, hearing, vision or cognitive disabilities -- can review any public space in their world. Once a space has been reviewed, AbleRoad publishes the review, which allows others who have a similar disability to read the reviews, making it easier to research and choose the businesses they want to patronize. Visitors to AbleRoad's website can also use their smartphone apps to submit their reviews.

People with disabilities, as well as their families and caregivers, can remotely view restaurants, stores, hotels, concert venues, and other public places that are rated for factors like wheelchair accessibility (also ease of access for blind, low vision or deaf people). AbleRoad has the potential to change the world in so many ways. McGuire has made it his mission to see that public venues around the country -- and eventually worldwide -- are accessible to everyone.

Where will all this lead? For anyone who faces any kind of adversity, creative thinking cannot make all the obstacles go away. Even the most ingenious solutions cannot change the reality of what we live with. But the very process of finding new solutions, discovering novel ways to put together the familiar to create the impossible -- in the tradition of Johann Gutenberg, Kevin McGuire, and so many others -- is sheer inspiration for us all.

So, here's a question for you to ponder: What do you have in common with other creative thinkers? How do we open ourselves to expand our thinking?

Maybe what it takes is a closer look at what seems impossible. Figuring out a new way to hold a paintbrush. Or how to combine the capabilities of a wine press and a coin punch. Or how to use the power of the internet to peer into public places and see whether it's safe to venture there.

The next time we feel that we don't have enough money, or we can't have what we want, we can see it as an opportunity for creativity. Instead of being disempowered by what we are faced with, we can see what is possible, and begin there to realize what can only be imagined. That's how we can all use the power of limits to expand our reality.


1. When was the last time you came up with a creative idea?

------ This morning

------ Yesterday

------ Last week

------ Last month

------ Last year

2. What was it?

3. What motivates you to be creative?

Here's to creative thinking,

I would love to hear from you so please do leave a comment below; or drop me an email at; or visit my Facebook fan page:

Contact Linda as a life coach for practical counseling. Visit for more information.

To book Linda for a speaking engagement, please contact BigSpeak at 805-965-1400.

If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life around illness or any adversity and apply a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please find Linda's book, You Are Not Your Illness: Seven Principles for Meeting the Challenge on

Linda Noble Topf is author of You Are Not Your Illness: Seven Principles for Meeting the Challenge, Simon & Schuster, 1995. Wheelchair Wisdom: Awaken Your Spirit Through Adversity, will be published in 2014 by Berrett-Koehler & iUniverse.