Extreme bionics is redefining the term disability

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Photo by Michelle Rivas

Hugh Herr, athlete, scientist, innovator and futurist, envisions a world free of human disability through the technology of biomechatronics.

As the Presidential Lecture Series speaker, he shared his research, results and goals with students and community March 7 in the Classroom Building.

“Imagine a future where we can actually solve depression, solve schizophrenia and solve anxiety,” said Herr. “Could we even comprehend that future?”

After a rock climbing accident in 1982, Herr suffered severe frostbite resulting in amputation below the knee of both legs. The specialized prosthetics that Herr designed allowed him to defy what the doctors anticipated was possible. He began rock climbing within months of surgeries and rehabilitation.

The biomechatronics research group at MIT have made breakthroughs such as new ways to perform amputations in order to wire nerves and muscles to the brain. Once you give the information to the brain that it needs, it doesn’t matter if the limbs are biological or synthetic, according to Herr.

“We will redefine, of course, this thing called disability,” said Herr. “I really hate the word disability, it’s really kind of silly. How I would describe myself is that I have a fairly unusual body, my limbs are amputated, that makes we family unusual. Is that a disability? Absolutely not.”

After raising over 65 million dollars, Herr and his team have been able to fit 2,000 people for prosthetics so far, half of which have been wounded US soldiers. These advanced leg prostheses and orthoses are able to emulate the functions of a human leg.

“This is beyond tools, this is a fundamental integration of neural and body technology,” said Herr. “[We can] solve human disability and disease in this century, while simultaneously adhering to what we hold so dear, individual freedoms, individual rights, and the value of human diversity.”

Herr and his team are blurring the distinction between the abled and disabled body. He encouraged all students to follow their passions, he himself didn’t do well in school until he cared and had a purpose.

“I’m a rock climber and I heard the story about how he lost both his limbs,” Reina Meza, an art and visual communications junior, said. “It really inspired me how he uses weakness and turns them into strengths.”“I want to know how he overcame fears, how he moved past the ‘oh I can’t do this’ mindset and find out how he got to that point of having a vision and then he made it, he materialized something out of it.”