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[VIDEO] Sue Austin on Creating New Ways of Seeing, Being, and Knowing

January 14, 2013 | By Dina Buck

What do you tell yourself about who you are, and who others are....what you are, or are not, capable of...what others are, or are not, capable of...what you, and others, must and must not do and be like?

If you're human, chances are there have been times you've been so busy creating, seeing, prescribing, and responding to life according to what you've already decided is the case that you've missed out on larger truths and possibilities.

Seeing, Being, Knowing Outside the Box to Create New Paradigms

Lucky for us humans, however, there are times when something is important enough, urgent enough, even dire enough, that we find ourselves breaking the constraints of our assumptions and conditioning.  For our own growth and well-being, we find ourselves compelled to re-frame a situation, and then act on this new perspective.  We may not be 100% sure we won't fail, look like a fool, be criticized or called "weird."  But we also can't not try.

And in trying, we increase the change that our life will expand, that we will find empowerment, and just maybe, inspire others as we go.  We remind ourselves that, not just in this instance, but in the bigger picture of things, there are new ways of seeing, being, and knowing we can discover.  In trying a different way of seeing and being, we expand the concept of who we are, and what our world may be.

Finding the Courage to Break with Mainstream Sentiment and Write Your Own Narrative

Sue Austin, in her awe-inspiring TED presentation above, is just one of those people who realized she could see, be, and know her world differently.  When an illness required her to use a wheelchair to get around, she was thrilled with the mobility her wheelchair gave her.  But at the same time, she says she became invisible to others.  And she began internalizing these responses. She states:

Even though I had this new-found joy and freedom, people's reaction completely changed towards me.  It was as if they couldn't see me anymore.  As if an invisibility cloak had descended.  They seemed to see me in terms of their assumptions of what it must be like to be in a wheelchair.  When I asked people their associations with the wheelchair, they used words like 'limitation,' 'fear,' 'pity,' and 'restriction.'  I realized I internalized these responses, and it changed who I was on a core level.  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, I knew I needed to make my own stories about this experience.  New narratives to reclaim my identity.  I started making work that aimed to communicate something of the joy and freedom I felt when using a wheelchair, a 'powerchair,' to negotiate the world.  I was working to transform these internalized responses, to transform the preconceptions that had so shaped my identity when I started using a wheelchair, by creating unexpected images.

Austin decided to turn her wheelchair into something to, as she puts it, "re-vision the familiar."  She started using her chair to create art, and then she took it even further.  She began ocean diving in it.  Realizing scuba gear extends humans' range of activity just like wheelchair does (but without the negative associations), she decided to see what would happen if she put the two together.  The result is nothing short of inspirational.

Expanding Your World Can Be Contagious

During her presentation, Austin repeatedly mentions "joy and freedom."  And at the end of her talk, she tells the audience about the changed response she has received from others since turning her wheelchair into a means of exploration and artistic expression. She says:

The incredibly unexpected thing is that other people seem to see and feel that, too...and I'm thinking it's because, in that moment of them seeing an object they have no frame of reference for also transcends the frames of reference they have with the wheelchair.  They have to think in a completely new way.  And I think that moment of completely new thought perhaps creates a freedom that spreads to the rest of other people's lives.  For me, this means they're seeing the value of difference.  The joy it brings.  When, instead of focusing on loss or limitation, we see, and discover the power and joy of seeing the world from exciting new perspectives.  For me, the wheelchair becomes a vehicle for transformation.

Individuals like Sue Austin serve as reminders that we don't have to buy into every story we are fed, or into limiting ideas of how we and the world have to be, or ought to be.  They remind us we have a choice about how we choose to think, act, and interact with the world around us.  And that, when we do this, our actions can inspire others to do the same.

If you've found your way to this blog, chances are you're someone who also wishes to "re-vision the familiar" in some positive way. For all of us who count ourselves in this category, we can take heart that there is no dearth of inspiring people showing us this is absolutely possible.

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