Defining the Difference Between Permanent and Surmountable Disability

24 Jul, 2012 Bob Wilson


I've written a bit recently regarding the disability dependency that seems to be strengthening its hold on our nation. I've expressed my viewpoint that "total disability" is often more a mental creation than a physical limitation. I've given my opinions on understanding the alternative realities of the total disability state of mind. Nothing I could say, however, could compare to the real life experience and credibility of Australian Warren Macdonald.

Macdonald, who was the opening speaker this week at the AASCIF 2012 conference in Portland, OR, is a double "above the knee" amputee, having lost his legs 15 years ago when he was crushed by a boulder while mountain climbing. Today he is a well known author and motivational speaker, having written an Australian best seller called “A Test of Will”. His story has also been featured on the Discovery Channel program “I Shouldn't Be Alive”. He has a message that every single seriously injured worker should hear. Simply put, Macdonald does not believe he has a "permanent total disability". Instead, he says he has an SD, a "Surmountable Disability".

How surmountable? Well, just 10 months after his accident, he scaled and summited Cradle Mountain in Tasmania. In the years since the loss of his legs, he has been a competitive swimmer and accomplished mountain climber, conquering numerous climbs, including El Capitan in Yosemite and Africa's highest mountain, Mt. Kilimanjaro. He is the only double above the knee amputee ever to do so. The man is a true inspiration, proving that impairment may be a physical reality, while disability is determined in the mind.

Macdonald told the AASCIF crowd that perception is indeed the key, and that people who believe they are disabled will be so by virtue of their attitude. It is for them a self fulfilling prophecy. He indicated he chose not to see his situation that way, and very soon after the accident set out to once again "be that guy I was". 

For me, one of the best phrases that he shared was this: It is not, "What you see is what you get, rather it is HOW you see is what you get". In other words, how you view your situation and choose to respond to it will be the determining factor regarding the impact your injury has in your life. The message is that many people, severely injured people, could live better lives if they recognized the limitations of their own negative viewpoints.

He was a very entertaining speaker, and in one of the funnier moments described his first competitive swim in Australia, in a race called "Pier to Pub". It was an annual event that had 6,000 swimmers paddling a couple miles across a bay from a pier on one side, to a pub on the other. Because of the sheer number of participants, the race was held with various starting groups throughout the day. McDonald left the shore with 752 other contestants, and he came in 493rd. As he pointed out, that meant that 259 swimmers had to cope with the notion that they had been beaten by a man with no legs.

Attitude matters. Perception is key. 

I've been raked over the coals by some injured workers for promoting essentially the same message. God forbid we suggest that attitude matters, and that we as individuals have a responsibility to ourselves to choose the best path we can. Macdonald carries credibility, by both his impairment and accomplishments, that defies such criticism from these circles. He is a man who is walking the walk - and doing it despite his physical challenges. He was a terrific choice to open this years conference. 

A "Surmountable Disability" is a notion and idea whose time has come. We should embrace that philosophy and incorporate it in our claims strategy. That is the perception that we as an industry must work to help create. It will be a difficult, but not insurmountable, challenge. 


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