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“Disability,” “Handicapped,” Aimee Mullins and survival of the fittest.

Aimee Mullins Rocks

Aimee Mullins at the TED conference

Is that a WOW or What?

TED is for the “thought leaders” of our generation. I’m so glad Aimee Mullins stood up in front of the world and talked about the words we use, the way we tell stories, our prejudices about people with disabilities and our ability to change and influence lives.

I’m thrilled she is beautiful, an accomplished athlete, and can deliver a message with the best communicators in the world. Chalk one up for our side. Aimee you did us proud.


I was really struck by the definitions. Yes, even in 2010 the words “disability” and “handicap” carry such derogatory connotations. Every time I hear the traffic report and they say, “there’s a disabled blocking the west lane” I just cringe.

I recently spent some time looking up the words: “retarded, moron, idiot and imbecile” and their histories (click here for related article).

Aimee talking about the negative effect these labels would have made on her when she was a young child was sobering. (See related article on the difference between handicap and disability.)

I particularly liked Aimee’s references to Darwin. Our ability to adapt, change, and transform determines the “survival of the fittest”.

Inclusion is our “survival of the fittest.”

This is why I believe in inclusion I agree it means the difference between survival and a decent quality of life. (related article).

Inclusion is about adapting, changing and transforming. It is about blending into the normal population the same way animals learn to camouflage themselves into their environments

The medical doctor saying that she was an example of the “X” factor was my takeaway moment.


If you are interested in my take on the differences between the label of “disability” and “handicapped” (click here). I would love to be able to pass this information on to Aimee. Perhaps it might help.

Come Dance With Me: Share your thoughts.

Were there any new ideas? Which of Aimee’s stories did you think were the most powerful? Do you have any stories about Medical or Educational professionals? What message would you want to send to Aimee? To her parents? To the medical professionals? If you had a chance to be a thought leader, what would you talk about?

Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward

All my best, Mary

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63 Responses to ““Disability,” “Handicapped,” Aimee Mullins and survival of the fittest.”

  • Morgan Johnson says:

    I am shocked by the definitions of “Disability.” I never thought of it as those words, but I can see people around the world thinking of it that way because our world is messed up. It is so true that adults have a big part of what we think of ourselves. Her PT helped her a lot with believing in herself and some people don’t have a person in their life where they are believed in. Some people who are born with a handicap don’t get the chance to believe in themselves because no one believed in them. That is really sad and I can’t imagine that. I love that she is sharing her story and that she says “the only true disability is a crushed spirit.” That is so true. I love that phrase.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      I agree Morgan, “the only true disability is a crushed spirit” is really inspiring. Help us spread the message and video.

  • Jane Tuckerman says:

    After watching this video my eyes were opened to the meaning of the word disability. I think it is something that people overlook how the people they are calling disabled feel about the word. Aimee is such an inspiration to me. I had never intended to misuse the word disability, but after watching this i realize that i had never truly understood it. Im glad that i took the time to watch this and will now use the word correctly!

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Hi Jane, Most people misuse the words. But the difference is all about hope–because we can’t change the disability, but we can change the attitudes and environment and some of the physical limitations (through therapy–where I learned the difference). Help us spread the word.

  • Stephanie Archdeacon says:

    OMG! Aimee is such an inspiration. She is such a role model for anyone who is categorized as disabled. I love how she talks about what the word means, and how even today, with the changes to what the word means, it is still seen as a weak person who needs help from others. It is heartbreaking to see the way people see other people with a disability. They are people just like us, but they might just need a little help. I have come to know many people with disabilities, and they are some of the most extraordinary people i know. I love how Aimee talked about her doctor, and how she talked about his way of trying to motivate her to work hard in physical therapy.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      OMG about sums Aimee up. We are all better for her courage and strength. Glad you liked this Stephanie.

  • I was shocked when I heard the definition of the word disabled. I was shocked and disgusted that those are the adjectives that they chose to relate to any person as an official definition. I was amazed with Aimee’s story and thought she was an inspiring and exceptional person. Her accomplishments are astonishing and I loved everything she had to say. I am surprised that I’ve never heard her story before, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to.
    Julie Farrell recently posted..“Disability,” “Handicapped,” Aimee Mullins and survival of the fittest.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      I agree Julie, Aimee is the kind of person who makes you glad you are alive. Now isn’t this better than reading a chapter in a textbook?
      More great stuff to come–oh this is so exciting 🙂

  • Lexi Weber says:

    Ted talks truly never fail to amaze me. Hearing Aimee speak about the word disabled gave me chills. I was absolutely stunned when she read off the dictionary definition. And I hope that this can change in the near future.

    This also reminded of Oscar Pistorius, the Olympic runner. He was such an inspiration to the world when we all saw him sprinting on those Olympic courts. Aimee and Oscar are neither disabled, they are both clearly very able to be just like all of the “capable” people.

  • Justin Lange says:

    I have never heard of Aimee until I watched this video, all I can say is WOW. She really opened my eyes up and it inspires me to live life like she does. I love her views on her “disability” and how she does really let it get to her. She is a great speaker and should continue to inspire others. Her “disability” completely counters the whole definition of the word and that is truly amazing.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      “Wow” is indeed the word! Can’t wait to hear what you think of the Norm Kunc’s video. I think you will also like that one.

  • Danielle Moore says:

    I thought Aimee is such an inspiration! She was an amazing speaker and so inspiring. The thing that amazed me was the definition of “disabled” that she showed us and after so many years it hasn’t changed. I hope that this definition is changed soon because she shows how strong disabled people can be.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      You’re right Danielle, Aimee is an inspiration. I wonder if she’s done any more presentations. That would be interesting. Thanks.

  • Kendall Collins says:

    I have heard of Aimee before and watching this video and reading the article made me more aware. When watching the video, my jaw dropped at the definition she read for the word “disabled.” I am extremely surprised at some of the words used to describe it, including weak crippled. I was more surprised at the antonyms: healthy, strong. Looking at Aimee, she may be disabled, but in no way do I see someone who isn’t healthy or strong. Definitions of words today are put in the wrong terms and misinterpreted.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      You’re right, it’s surprising and words mean a lot. That is why I feel so strongly about “People First” language.

  • Christina Vergara says:

    I have heard of Aimee Mullins but never knew the whole story. After watching this video I was blown away by her strength and the way she talks and views her “disability.” It was very eye opening and real. I love hearing her speak and learned so much in such a short time period.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Aimee really is a pioneer. I thought about holding this article until next week and the Olympics, but Aimee really does pack the message in a short period. Thanks.

  • Elijahjuan Pennington says:

    I loved the video. Aimee Mullins is truly an inspiration. Her presentation also set out some great points about the terms disability and handicapped which i liked. To me, those words carry a negative connotation which leads people to think that ‘disability’ and ‘handicap’ are negative things.

  • Jessica Rosselot says:

    Aimee Mullins speech at the TED conference is extremely eye opening. One thing Aimee said was “Our language affects our thinking.” Without even knowing it we use words that can impact people’s thinking, especially young children who are still trying to figure everything out in the world. The language we use form the views and beliefs of our children, our future. We need to start thinking more before we speak, especially when we are trying to move forward in limiting the stereotypes society has for disabled people and help make everyone be viewed as equal.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      In the new today a New York Times writer is apologizing for using the “r” word. I think we are making progress. People like Aimee Mullins and each of us can use respectful language and do our bit for change. Thanks Jessica.

  • Miranda Ranieri says:

    The use of words have gone extremely wrong. I do not agree with freely using certain words, especially when it refers to a disability. SInce the certain word being used refers to a disability that a person may have it should not be used freely. Use the word freely makes it direct to a person that actually has the disability, which is making fun of the person. No one likes to be made fun of especially when it deals with a disability that is apart of a persons life. It is becoming norm to use words wrongly in the younger generations. We need to take action to change that. No one pays attention to the actual meaning and don’t even realize what they are really saying. Which I find pathetic.

    • mary says:

      You are right Miranda, the words insult and hurt us. “I’ll never get over seeing the word “idiot” next to my baby’s name.

  • Maci says:

    When I watched the video linked above, I was very insulted to the different definitions that surfaced when talking about being “disabled”. Even though I do not have a “disability” it is still extremely insulting. Therefore I can’t imagine how one would feel having a disability and watching the video and what it talks about. Also I really like how she states that our dictionaries do not change or develop over time as our society does. I think it is really important for things like this to be dynamic, rather than static. Our world is changing, growing, and learning everyday and it will never stop. Therefore, I think that our definitions and the ways we view life and individuals should also be dynamic. Our world is not static, so it wouldn’t make sense for us to be.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      I also still find it shocking every time I watch this video. And you’re right Maci, “our world is not static, so it wouldn’t make sense for us to be.”–love this quote BTW!

  • Katee Moon says:

    This article is one of the most inspiring things I have read about. Aimee Mullins is strong in so many aspects, I admire her and her talents.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Aimee has a couple more videos on You-Tube and on TED that are also wonderful. Glad you liked this one Katee.

  • Ali Buchanan says:

    Aimee Mullins is a great speaker. When she talks and is giving her presentation, she is really moving. She defiantly has a way with her words that leave you thinking more, and opening your eyes to the current world around. What really left an impact on me while watching this video was when she said this statement, “Adversity isn’t an obstacle in life, and it is part of life”. That short little sentence is really moving and makes you realize that little hiccups in life are not has hard as we think compared to what others have to experience day by day. She also says that even with the obstacles she experiences; she does not side step through life, she takes life head. This is really moving because it makes me feel like if anyone can go through the struggles she has, anyone can accomplish their goals. This clip is eye opening and is encouraging me to take the days head on and not side step through life anymore.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Aimee is an inspiration. Glad she touched you Ali. She really meets her adversity head on and succeeds. What a role model!

  • Shelby Suess says:

    Right away Aimee talks about the negative concepts attached to the word disabled. I think the word that stuck out to me most was useless or helpless. While I have, unfortunately, thought about the negative connotations attached to people with disabilities, I can’t say that I would ever have described a person with disabilities as useless. In one of your other posts it talks about how love is most important when it comes to people with disabilities and I think that can come into play here as well. We look at Aimee and see all of here accomplishments because she has indeed worked hard and overcome many obstacles, but what about other people who are not in the spotlight? Or maybe others with more severe disabilities? I think it’s important to celebrate all person’s with disabilities and help them believe that they truly can do what they want to achieve. Aimee later says, it’s not IF you’ll be faced with in your life, it’s when and how you’re going to deal with it. I think it’s important to be educated on various disabilities and how they’re unique to each individual so you can treat them how they want to be treated and not as useless or helpless.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      You are right Shelby, it is all about the “if” because we know it is coming. Each person is unique and special and has gifts. That’s a great lesson for each of us.

  • Hannah Ratnasamy says:

    Aimee Mullins was a great speaker with some good points within her presentation. One of the best points I thought she brought was the importance of words and the impact they play in our culture today. The words that are still in the thesaurus are really what society labels and values those with so called disabilities. Yet Mullins comes up with her own definition of a disability that so much more accurate in my mind: “to crush a spirit, to withdraw hope, to promote an inability to see beauty, to deprive of imagination. To make abject.” I think these words are powerful and captures the true meaning of a disability. Her story and actions prove the point that even those with so called disabilities can be stronger than those who are “whole.” I loved the way she ended her talk as well because although society has so many negative words that are used to describe those with disabilities, the writer of this poem sheds a truth that we all need to hear. The truth that God only knows four words: come, dance with me.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      “Come, dance with me” is just fantastic. We all can learn from Aimee’s great attitude. Thanks Hannah for your comment.

  • Gabrielle fields says:

    I find it appalling that words such as “helpless”, “useless” and “weakened” were used in a book intended to educate the population. How is the worlds view of people with disabilities going to change if the words associated with disabled are such harsh and negative words? Aimee Mullins took every single one of those synonyms and prove them wrong. She is a strong and amazing person who is changing the way people with disabilities are viewed, it won’t happen overnight but she is making a difference by helping change the view of people with disabilities, and I applause her or that, way to go Aimee!

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Well said Gabrielle. Aimee proved the critics wrong, now it is up to each of us to make “the amazing” and “impossible” happen. Thanks for your comment.

  • Rachel Ploucha says:

    I absolutely love and agree with the central themes of what Aimee says in this video. As others have said before me, the power of language is arguably the most potent force in society; communication has the ability to make or break a person. It is indeed up to us to change the way that words are used and viewed, especially, as Aimee says, when raising children, as what we teach them shapes their outlook on the world. It also leads one to other questions, such as the role of others’ opinions in how one views oneself, and the very meaning of language itself. All in all she is a beautiful speaker. The idea of “dancing with adversity” stood out especially to me. Good stuff indeed.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      You are right Rachel, good stuff indeed. Communication is the glue that holds our world together. That is one reason the media is so powerful and another reason why, if no one talks about your issues (people with disabilities) you have little power. The power we can use is changing the way we communicate and challenging others when they are disrespectful in our presence.

  • Anne Pace says:

    Aimee Mullins’ speech is extremely powerful and empowering. It really made me think about the words I use in daily life and if any of them have negative connotations, like the word disabled had in the 1982 and even in 2009. I could not believe all of the harsh synonyms for the word disabled. These words are very demeaning and discouraging. I thought Aimee’s story about talking to the doctor that delivered her was extremely powerful. Her seeing and talking to her doctor that gave a prognosis that she would never be able to walk again shows her determination and ability to live and adapt to adversity. It is very important that Aimee and many other people are able to view adversity as a challenge to live with and adapt to, rather than an obstacle to cause set backs in life. I have a similar story to Aimee’s story about medical professionals. A few years ago, my grandpa needed serious open brain surgery but my family did not know how serious the surgery was until the surgeon came up to my family and to my grandparents when my grandpa was being discharged and told us that it was a miracle that he lived. These stories about medical professionals can teach people and other professionals that adapting to adversity can really make immense impacts on lives. If I could send a message to Aimee, I would explain to her that she is an incredible inspiration to me as well as to many other people. I would also explain to her that she has helped me to realize that adversity should be looked at as a change that a person has not adapted themselves too. Also, that it only takes one action or one person to inspire someone to discover the beauty within themselves and to use their power to positively affect the community. If I was a leader, I would encourage everyone to find their own inner beauty and to engage in the community to make it a better place. I would also encourage people to try and adapt themselves to the adversity in their lives to be able to show the world their inner power.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Beautifully written Anne. Aimee is an inspiration. She took control of her life and her inner power to affect change–and she did it! Glad you were able to relate the story to your Grandfather–we all need miracles in our lives. And, we all have the power to change our language/expectations and ask others around us to change their language and expectations. Thanks for your comment.

  • Adrianne Lanyi says:

    The words “disability” and “handicap” have such a degrading connotations. Although people try and take a sensitive approach to those with disabilities, they are still thought of as different than “normal” people. People do not realize that labeling people with disabilities as “different” can be insulting. I think people need to become more aware of what they are saying because a lot of times everyone just becomes so used to using phrases that may be offensive to others.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      You are right Adrianne, we often do not think of the connotations of the words we use. Whenever we label someone as different, the “we vs. they” attitude, we miss communication and getting the know the other person. Thanks for your comment.

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  • Helen Macmann says:

    I agree with Aimee Mullins that if I had heard any of those things I would have been crushed. It’s a terrible thing the way society views people with disabilities. It broke my heart when she said she choked up while reading the thesaurus. I agree that humans change and adapt best but it’s weird to think how easily people adapt to new technology, different climates, etc, but have taken and still are taking such a long time to adapt to and include and accept people with disabilities. It was funny when she spoke about the man who delivered her, I could only think how awkward that would be, when I was born the umbilical cord was wrapped around my neck and I had to be yanked out and my collarbone broke, I feel like that conversation would go “Hey it’s been awhile, how’s the collarbone doing?” Anyway the man was so sweet and I loved how he kept the newspaper clippings and was like “you’ve been proving me wrong ever since.” Aimee Mullins is very inspirational, I had never heard of her before and I’m glad to have been introduced to her. Thank you.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Hi Helen, it’s neat that you could make a joke –but you’re right, who would ever think the Doctor who delivered you would keep a file and be a secret admirer.

      Aimee is an inspiration to all of us.

  • Ashley says:

    I loved the line from the video,” Everyone has something rare and powerful to offer to society.” That is so true, if only everyone could find their voice, their power and show it to the world instead of hiding behind their insecurity and maybe even a disability. I think people who have disabilities just need the love and support to get to the point where they aren’t afraid to be themselves, heck everyone needs that.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      You are right Ashley, the bottom line is we all have the same need for support–the amount, duration and frequency might change, but when we are honest, we are all the same insecure people who need to learn to use our power.

  • Aimee Mullins’ speech opened my eyes to the misinterpreted definition of disabled. Like in class on Tuesday, when asked to define ‘disabled’, some of the words I used were in the definitions Aimee found. Sadly, my definition of disabled was skewed much like many others’. Clearly, Aimee does not embody any of those characteristics and she is a perfectly healthy individual. This is what she is trying to make known to people all over the world. People should not make any assumptions about individuals with disabilities; one of the main issues still in today’s society. Unfortunately, just two days ago, I was one of the people with an unclear definition of disability. However, when I heard Aimee’s initial reading of the words she found describing ‘disability’, I immediately felt disgusted with myself and knew they were wrong. I found Aimee’s speech to be an overall inspiring work to encourage everyone to treat all people with the equality and respect they deserve.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Hi Madison,
      Don’t be so hard on yourself. We all start somewhere. The good news is you have begun to see things differently and that is what learning is all about. Aimee is inspiring. You can be inspiring too. Thanks for being so honest.

  • Alexa Miller says:

    This video was amazing. The woman Aimee Mullins seems to be a gift from God and is a spectacular speaker! Less than one minute into the video, she gave the definition of “disability” from her Webster’s New World Thesaurus. The words that she said were listed are devastating to say the least. Just as bad were the antonyms, “healthy, strong, and capable.” I know that these words described as the synonyms and antonyms of a disability are untrue. I do not think that it is fair or acceptable for this to be said about people who are different. The printing was from less than 35 years ago! I had no idea that talk like this was published. Apparently, I am extremely naïve–considering what is said about those with disabilities of any kind. I cannot imagine having a disability and coming across this…I would be heart broken. I hope and pray that writings such as these (from the past and the current) do not discourage those with disabilities but make them strive to be the best they can be and prove everyone wrong!

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Hi Alexa, I could feel your heart in your answer. That is why Rosa’s law was written and many people worked so hard to get negative language removed from local, state and national laws and official documents. Now if we can only remove the disrespectful language from the media, eh? And, the language of people around us. We have made much progress, and the best place to start is with ourselves.
      Thanks for your comments.

  • Alexa Rogers says:

    I think it’s very important to spread awareness of the language we use towards people that have disabilities or are handicapped. Especially in the younger generations, people are unaware that they language they use can really affect others. It can be very offensive and it is completely unnecessary. The only way society will learn is if people like this make others aware of their actions. Sometimes, individuals don’t even realize what they are saying and that is what needs to change. Sensitivity, intelligence, and tolerance are very important aspects of change.

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Hi Alexa,
      You are right language makes a big difference. There is a 3 year old little girl, who today in 2012 is being told she will not even be put on the waiting list for a kidney because she has the label of mental retardation. Who knows what the potential of a 3 year old is. Labels can be powerful.

  • Clair Christofersen says:

    This is amazing! Mary, I just subscribed to your blog and am loving it – totally inspiring. I have a severe hearing loss myself, a student at Miami University, and people have had low expectations of me my entire life. Luckily, I have incredible parents who raised me to be strong and persevere, so I am excited about becoming a high school math teacher and hopefully passing on all of the important knowledge from your blog to the next generation of students.

    I’m sure you have it written somewhere, but what specifically is your disability? And it what ways has it impacted you the most?

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      Hi Clair,

      Welcome to our Climbing Every Mountain community. Sounds like you are going to do great things and make a difference in the world. You will have students with all sorts of labels and needs in your high school math class. If you learn to differentiate the curriculum for each individual, each student, with or without labels, will have a better chance at success.

      My son, Aaron has the label of autism, cerebral palsy and motor issues. Like your parents, I do my best to help him. If you want more information go to the “About” page at the top of the blog, or check out some of the other articles. I brag about him a lot.

  • Love the TED conferences, thanks for sharing this!

    • Mary E. Ulrich says:

      It’s great isn’t it? If you come across other training materials you think our readers would be interested in, let me know. Welcome to our community.

  • webcamgirl says:

    I like how are you thinking…and I must confess I’m totally addicted to your articles!

  • Marti Otten says:

    Aimee is an amazing light being! Just like the dancers & kids at AZDance in their holiday performance.
    They walk their talk and serve to remind us to “dance with adversity!”

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