"It's wonderful to be here to talk about my journey; to talk about the wheelchair and the freedom it has bought me," said Sue Austin at the beginning of the video shown at TEDxMaui on Jan. 13 (2009, TEDx Women).
She started using a wheelchair 16 years ago when an extended illness changed the way she could access the world. Because she had observed her life slipping away and becoming restricted, she found tremendous new freedom when she started using a wheelchair.
"It was like having an enormous new toy," Austin said. "I could whiz around and feel the wind in my face again. Just being out on the street was exhilarating."
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But even with this newfound joy and independence, she couldn't help but notice that people's reaction completely changed towards her.
"It was as if they couldn't see me anymore...," she said. "They seemed to see me in terms of their assumptions of what it must be like to be in a wheelchair."
And indeed, when she asked people their associations with the wheelchair, they used words like "limitation," "fear," "pity" and "restriction."
"I realized I'd internalized these responses and it had changed who I was on a core level," she said. "A part of me had become alienated from myself. I was seeing myself not from my perspective, but vividly and continuously from the perspective of other people's responses to me."
As a result, she realized she needed to make her own stories about this experience and new narratives to reclaim her identity.
So she set out on a mission to communicate the joy and freedom she felt when using a wheelchair, working to transform her internalized responses and the preconceptions that had shaped her "wheelchair identity" by creating unexpected images.
Her wheelchair became an object to paint and play with. With paint dispensers hooked up to the wheels of her chair, she began to leave "traces of my joy and freedom," which elicited surprised responses from those who saw her creative designs.
"It seemed to open up new perspectives," she said, "and therein lays the paradigm shift."
She demonstrated that an arts practice can remake one's identity and transform preconceptions by re-visioning the familiar.
But that was not the end of her experiment. She began to dive in 2005 using an incredible underwater wheelchair that has taken her on the most amazing journey over the last seven years.
The underwater footage of her experience in the water is not to be described or missed. Visit www.ted.com/talks/sue_austin_deep_sea_diving_in_a_wheelchair.html to view an amazing video of deep sea diving in a wheelchair.
"It is the most amazing experience, beyond most other things I've experienced in life," said Austin.
And, she said, the incredibly unexpected thing is that other people seem to see and feel that, too.
"Their eyes literally light up, and they say things like, 'If you can do that, I can do anything,'" she relayed.
It's because, in that moment of them seeing an object they have no frame of reference for, or so transcends the frames of reference they have with the wheelchair, they have to think in a completely new way, perhaps creating a new freedom for them, said Austin.
Instead of focusing on loss and limitation, they see and discover the power and joy of seeing the world from exciting new perspectives.
In repurposing her wheelchair, Austin redefines the word "disability."
"For me, the wheelchair becomes a vehicle for transformation," said Austin. "... It's literally pushed me through into a new way of being, into new dimensions and into a new level of consciousness.
"Now that you have this concept in your mind, you're all part of the artwork, too," she said. "By creating our own stories, we learn to take the texts of our lives as seriously as we do 'official' narratives."