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OPINION: 'Avatar' re-envisions life with disabilities

Sam Worthington, as

Sam Worthington, as "Jake," gets his first look at his avatar, a human-alien hybrid bred from Jake's own DNA, in "Avatar." Photo Credit: Twentieth Century-Fox, 2009

Valerie Karr is the author of the book "It's About Ability: The Rights of Persons with Disabilities" and an assistant professor at Adelphi University.


Among the revolutions in James Cameron's new science fiction epic "Avatar" is its re-imagination of life with disability. The central character is Jake, a war veteran paralyzed in combat who can fully function through a mental link to a genetically engineered avatar. Jake is delighted to be able to run and jump again in his virtual body.

For the more than 650 million people living with disabilities in the world - including a steady stream of war veterans - and their advocates, the film's utopia isn't necessarily the one Cameron intended. Cameron describes the alien civilization that inhabits the film as "aspirational, what we would like to think of ourselves as," while humans are busy spoiling biodiversity. Instead, we see a person with paralysis walk, run and jump again.

It's easy to scoff at such a conceit as a plot device in a blockbuster. What's more, to teachers, advocates, therapists and caregivers, being disabled is but a variable on the spectrum of human diversity. Disabilities involve barriers, but those like Jake's are not to be "undone." That said, one can't help having a sense of wonder at the possibilities raised in the film, and how far we've come in closing the gap between science fiction and reality.

For American veterans, wars have brought new protective technologies and lifesaving medical advances to keep pace with the new and improved ways of damaging soldiers. Had Jake suffered a spinal injury in the Battle of Liege during World War I, he would most likely have died. Had he survived, he would have been given a cumbersome pushchair and relegated to a life of isolation.

It wasn't until World War II that medicine had advanced to routinely save the lives of spinal-cord-injury victims, and community supports began to appear at home. During the Korean and Vietnam wars, a soldier like Jake could have survived a high-velocity penetrating brain injury, as well as the closed head injuries of the type caused by IEDs in Iraq.

Fortunately, it's no longer enough for soldiers like Jake to merely survive. Over the period of medical advancement since World War I came an increased focus on quality of life for veterans with disabilities - better therapies, community rehabilitation services, employment and other resources.

Advances in science and technology have now made possible things a Jake from World War I could not have imagined. Today, amputees are being fitted with prosthetic limbs and fingers that enable them to regain functions and even a sense of touch. Using nanotechnology, scientists at Northwestern University repaired the severed spinal cords of mice without surgery or drugs by injecting them with tiny molecular structures. After six weeks, the mice were able to walk again. We must wonder, how far behind are people?

Just as Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" imagined wireless communications, videoconferencing and artificial intelligence that didn't exist when the film was released, it's not mere fantasy to consider where science will lead for persons with disabilities. Assistive technologies such as TTY telecommunication for the deaf and Braille computer keyboards are now widely available, but may soon be obsolete as everyday consumer technologies - like video chats and talking iPod applications - make the world more accessible to the disabled.

Virtual reality of the sort "Avatar" envisions may not yet exist, but as anyone who has played Nintendo Wii knows, you can interact in virtual worlds inhabited entirely by the avatars of real world users. Some of these worlds are quite big: The "World of Warcraft," the largest virtual gaming world in use now, has 11.5 million subscribers.

Science will continue to push the envelope on behalf of people with disabilities. But Cameron has scored a minor miracle of his own - not by envisioning a futuristic assistive technology, but by moving away from cinema's imagery of the disabled as pitiful and crippled, and assuring us that everyday heroes exist among them.