Exploring The Meaning Of Mobility With Paralympic Athletes In Athens

The word “impossible” holds different meanings for different people. For some, “impossible” is a roadblock, a dead stop, a mile-high hurdle not worth jumping over. It’s an excuse to throw in the towel, to give up, to settle for less. For some, hope can seem impossible, for others, “impossible” is a battle cry, a challenge to push oneself further, to defy limitations. It’s what dreams are built on.

Paralympic athletes Brad Snyder, Tatyana McFadden, and Olympic swimmer Rami Anis have had plenty of experience creating dreams out of the rubble of adversity. It’s why they traveled to Athens, Greece, the birthplace of the Games, the original global stage for defying the word “impossible,” for the first annual Toyota Mobility Summit, aimed at starting a conversation around how technology can help everyone achieve forward mobility.

Sporting events like the Olympics bring the world together. They remind us of a shared dream, of the possibility for potential. That’s what the summit in Greece, along with Toyota’s “Start Your Impossible” initiative, is geared towards doing — helping people of all backgrounds living with all kinds of circumstances have the chance to live up to their own promise. And they’re doing it through some pretty cool tech.

Paralympic swimmer Brad Snyder’s world went dark in 2011. The U.S. Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal Technician — he was a real-life Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker — had an IED explode right in front of him in Afghanistan. It didn’t take his limbs, but it did take his eyes. Snyder spent a year recovering, learning to manage basic tasks. He also took up swimming again. A blind man swimming is not “impossible” but a blind man bouncing back from a traumatic injury to compete and win gold in the Paralympics just one year later? That might be. Snyder did it anyway. He went to the Mobility Summit because he wants to give others without the gift of sight a chance to do what he did. Project Blade — a new piece of tech that made its debut in Greece — employs the same mechanics used in self-driving cars to help the visually-impaired. It might not be the catalyst for another blind veteran to win the Olympics, but it has the ability to help people see and, more importantly, be seen.

Tatyana McFadden, another athlete redefining words like “mobility” and “impossible” grew up in an orphanage in Russia. For six years she had no idea where her life was headed. She did know she had a hole in her spine — she was born with Spina Bifida — and because the orphanage had no wheelchairs, she had to learn to walk on her hands to keep up with the other kids. She was adopted by an American couple and settled in the U.S. She wanted to compete in track but had to fight to enact a law allowing people with disabilities to race alongside abled students — one every school in the nation now follows — in order to do so. By 15, she had become the youngest US Paralympian to compete in the Games. By 28, she had won 17 medals and raced in 17 marathons. She can’t drive the i-ROAD — another piece of new tech that debuted at the summit that serves as a cross between a small car and a motorcycle and allows its driver to operate using only their hands — in her sporting events, but the vehicle could make life easier for her and everyone else living their daily life on two wheels.

But mobility isn’t just about the action of moving forward, its the drive behind that action. What spurs people to make a change, to pursue the impossible? Rami Anis’ hurdle wasn’t physical. The promising swimmer was one of the fastest in the pool in his home country. But that home country happened to be Syria and once war broke out in Aleppo, Anis was forced to put his Olympic dreams on hold and make the dangerous trek from Turkey to Greece — a journey that has killed over 3,000 refugees in recent years. He swam when he could, reuniting with family members in Europe when it was safe and eventually marching with a ten-man team in Rio under a nationless flag, the first refugee team to compete in the history of the Games. For him, the Mobility Summit represented an opportunity to give the world a different perspective on the “impossible,” to look at people who have continued moving forward despite insurmountable odds and see a bit of themselves in their stories.

Anis, McFadden, and Snyder helped usher in the “Start Your Impossible” initiative with the hope that the tech people saw in Greece and the journeys they heard will help others get moving towards accomplishing their dreams, to get the world moving towards peace and a sustainable future. Because if Anis, McFadden, and Snyder can teach us anything, it’s that “impossible” is just a matter of perspective.