Disability redefined

The very basic function of the concept called “disability” has perplexed me for decades. Why is it automatically given a negative connotation when thought or spoken out loud? Why do we teach our children that it’s inappropriate to look at a disabled person rather than encouraging them to inquire freely? It seems to further ingrain the lesson that disability is something to be avoided rather than approached as an opportunity for learning.

For the sake of brevity, I will focus solely on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition of disability which states:
“Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations. Thus disability is a complex phenomenon, reflecting an interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.” 1

I propose a different definition for “disability”: “opportunities unrealized”. It’s simple, straightforward, and uncluttered by unnecessary negativity that surrounds the WHO standard definition. As most of you are familiar with the Chinese word for crisis is a combination of “danger” and “opportunity”. It’s spelled as weiji: wei = danger ji = opportunity. I won’t be discussing the etymology of the character in depth, nor the meme behind it, but only to illustrate the idea that disability should be viewed in the same light.



In today’s society, we put too much emphasis on the medical condition of a person’s condition rather than seizing the situation as the perfect opportunity to make a difference. We find it easier to categorize them, push them into the furthest corner of our minds, perhaps to avoid acknowledging our own fragility, or should I say potential innate strengths? Recent studies have shown that the disability group has “the largest rate of increase of college graduates, . . . set continuously high rate of retention of loyal employees across all industries, benefited the most from technical advances regarding accommodations, and has the greatest potential of creating innovative solutions to organizational and external problems”2 yet they’re one of the most ignored segment of the population. In other words, opportunities are being squandered.

In this day and age, we have the potential of redefining the viewpoint of how we see disabled people, from one of enabling and exclusion, to one of empowering and inclusion. After all, if we were to look at every disabled people that we meet, rather than thinking about what “they” cannot do, we should readjust our attitude and ask ourselves what “we” can do together, and in the process enrich the community, not just for the disabled people, but for ourselves as well.

Here are several examples of how by utilizing the opportunities created by the disabled segment that went mainstream that ended up benefiting us all:

  • Nuance Communication, leader in the field of speech and imaging solution, began as a disability software provider. They invented the voice command technology to assist those who could not type. Today, their algorithm is found on nearly almost every imaginable device out there, such as Amazon’s e-reader to Ford Motor’s voice recognition system.
  • Mattel licensed the technology from a San Jose company called NeuroSky, who specialized in brainwave-harvesting technology, intended for paraplegic people to control equipments via sensors. Mattel realized that they could take it mainstream & create a headband in order to develop radical games, such as moving a ball around an obstacle course with your thoughts. They’ve literally creating the game platform of the future.
  • Apple’s VoiceOver was developed back in 1980s when they tried to figure out how to create a “universal” access on their Macintosh platform. It’s a standard feature on all of their equipments where it would read all items, such as text, numbers, web pages on the screen in a voice that was actually pleasant to listen to.
  • Google’s most recent entry in disability assistance is apparent with the work done by two deaf software engineer named Ken Harrenstein and Greg Millam. They developed a remarkable captioning software for all the videos posted on YouTube with the intention of ensuring that the deaf people weren’t left behind. The company realized that they could create a synergy of language translators and make it into a mainstream item that would allow everybody in the world to participate in this endeavor, especially in their own language.

There are many more unsung heroes such as Thomas Edison’s phonograph, predictive-text software that’s used to finish words on the search engines and emails, and so forth.

What about potential of revolutionizing the written language by incorporating what was previously thought as non-writeable, the American Sign Language. Fascinating work has been done by a gentleman named Robert Arnold, who challenged the conventional thinking of deaf segment by daring to create a written version called ASL Writing3 (not to be confused with Sign Writing). As we all know, writing in English is similar to a flat 2 dimensional structure, what if we were able to incorporate the benefits of spatial thinking into the writing system. Imagine the huge breakthrough it could herald in the field of programming, which tends to think in flat 2-D binary, to potential a 3-D programming language that was previously thought as impossible to do. Quantum Computers could become much more effective and push the frontier of what’s possible. What does ASL writing look like? Here’s an example:



can be written as

It’s the motion and hand gesture in sequential manner that creates the word “Sign” using American Sign Language. (Not to be confused with the S.E.E. (Signing Exact English) version where they use the letter d on both hands for the same word).

So at this point, I encourage everybody to no longer see disabilities as an inability, but simply as an opportunity unrealized. Please take every opportunity to push yourself out of your comfort zone, and seek out ways of expanding that zone. Make it a mandate to encourage every member of the community partake in this personal growth, encourage your children to approach any disabled peopled as a learning experience and to seize onto every opportunity that arises in which we all can make a difference. It does indeed take a village.
William Harkness 03 / 05 / 10
Special Thanks to Awet Moges.

1 http://www.who.int/topics/disabilities/en/  – Note: Bold Formatting is mine.

2 http://diversityinc.com/content/1757/article/6994/?

3 http://www.aslian.com/

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William Harkness

Hyperboreans & HMoC founder. Futurist by nature, engineer by trade. Apple zealot & Obama critic.

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