This is part of a series of stories on design and disability from the July-August 2009 Utne Reader. For more read “ Form and Fashion ,” “ Building a Better Arm ,” “ The Future of Prosthetics ,” and “ The Hype and Hope of Prosthetics .”
Aimee Mullins has become the fashionable face of disability and a spokeswoman for the promise of high-tech prosthetics. Her appearance in magazines, on television shows, and on speaking stages with her carbon fiber running legs or her other state-of-the-art prosthetics has been part of what she describes as “a new conversation” about disability.
Mullins was born without fibular bones; both of her legs were amputated below the knee when she was an infant. She learned to walk on prosthetics, then to run, competing as a champion sprinter in college. She is a model and actress, having appeared as a catlike creature in the art film Cremaster 3. This is an excerpt from “How My Legs Give Me Superpowers,” a speech she gave at the 2009 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference. —The Editors
I was speaking to a group of kids at a children’s museum, and I brought with me a bag full of legs and had them laid out on a table. Kids are naturally curious about what they don’t know, or don’t understand, or what is foreign to them. They only learn to be frightened of those differences when an adult influences them to behave that way and censors that natural curiosity. I pictured a first-grade teacher out in the lobby saying, “Now, whatever you do, don’t stare at her legs.”
But, of course, that’s the point. That’s why I was there—I wanted to invite them to look and explore. So I made a deal with the adults that the kids could come in, without any adults, for two minutes. The doors open; the kids descend on this table of legs, and they are poking and prodding, and they’re wiggling toes, and they’re trying to put their full weight on the sprinting leg to see what happens. And I said, “I woke up this morning and I decided I wanted to be able to jump over a house. If you could think of any animal, any superhero, any cartoon character, anything you can dream up right now, what kind of legs would you build me?”
Immediately a voice shouted, “Kangaroo!” “Should be a frog!” “It should be Go Go Gadget!” “It should be the Incredibles.” And then one 8-year-old said, “Hey, why wouldn’t you want to fly too?” And the whole room, including me, was like, “Yeah.” Just like that, I went from being a woman these kids would have been trained to see as disabled to somebody who had potential that their bodies didn’t have yet. Somebody who might even be super-abled. Interesting.
Some of you actually saw me at TED 11 years ago. TED was the launchpad to the next decade of my life’s exploration. At the time, the legs I presented were groundbreaking in prosthetics. I had woven carbon fiber sprinting legs modeled after the hind leg of a cheetah, and also these very lifelike, intrinsically painted, silicone legs.
It was my opportunity to put a call out to innovators outside the traditional medical prosthetic community to bring their talent to the science and to the art of building legs—so we can stop compartmentalizing form, function, and aesthetic and assigning them different values.
This started an incredible journey. Curious encounters were happening to me; I’d been accepting invitations to speak on the design of the cheetah legs around the world. People would come up to me after my talk, and the conversation would go something like this: “You know, Aimee, you’re very attractive. You don’t look disabled.” I thought, “Well, that’s amazing, because I don’t feel disabled.” It opened my eyes to this conversation that could be explored about beauty. What does a beautiful woman have to look like? What is a sexy body? And interestingly, from an identity standpoint, what does it mean to have a disability? I mean, Pamela Anderson has more prosthetic in her body than I do. Nobody calls her disabled.
Today, I have over a dozen pairs of prosthetic legs, and with them I have different negotiations of the terrain under my feet. And I can change my height—I have a variable of five different heights. Today, I’m six foot one. I had these legs made in England, and when I brought them home to Manhattan, a girl who has known me for years at my normal five foot eight went, “But you’re so tall!” I said, “I know. Isn’t it fun?” And she looked at me and she said, “But Aimee, that’s not fair.”
That’s when I knew that the conversation with society has changed profoundly. It is no longer a conversation about overcoming deficiency. It’s a conversation about augmentation. It’s a conversation about potential. A prosthetic limb doesn’t represent the need to replace loss anymore. It can stand as a symbol that wearers have the power to create whatever it is that they want to create in that space. So people society once considered disabled can now become the architects of their own identities and indeed continue to change those identities by designing their bodies from a place of empowerment. What is exciting is that by combining cutting-edge technology—robotics, bionics—with the age-old poetry, we are moving closer to understanding our collective humanity. If we want to discover the full potential in our humanity, we need to celebrate those heartbreaking strengths and those glorious disabilities we all have. It is our humanity and all the potential within it that makes us beautiful.
The annual TED conference brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers. Learn more about TED and hear “riveting talks by remarkable people” at www.ted.com.