Paralympics 2012

I’m profoundly impressed by people with disabilities who study, work, compete in sports, or simply bring joy to others by not giving up.

Take these two Asian athletes. The first, Maya Nakanishi, lost half of her right leg in an accident at a paint factory in Japan when she was 21. Now 27, and after visiting so many companies to talk about sponsorships, to no avail, she decided to pose in the nude for a 2013 calendar. Everything was done in good taste, her calendar sales reached 5 million yen ($50,000), and Maya is now in London for the 2012 Summer Paralympic Games. Poverty and disability definitely did not get in her way.

Maya Nakanishi. Photo from The Atlantic (see text for details).

The second is 28-year-old Thin Seng Hon, who was born without a fully formed leg. She doesn’t expect to win a medal at the Paralympics because her “lucky leg” (as she calls her sole prosthetic) isn’t even built for sprinting and is therefore infinitely less comfortable than those worn by other first-world rivals (including Nakanishi). Nevertheless, as the sole athlete from Cambodia to qualify for the Paralympics, she said she would try her best. Another stunning example of triumph over disability and poverty.

Thin Seng Hon. Photo from The Atlantic (see text for details).

My interest in the Paralympics began a couple of years ago, when a group of students and I worked on a computer simulation of the game Showdown, which is like air hockey, but for the blind and visually impaired. The players of our prototype game used a Nintendo Wiimote as paddle and had to pay attention to audio (e.g., sound of the ball rolling toward them) and vibro-tactile cues. I’ve another couple of groups currently working on a simulation of boxing, in which blind players also have to pay attention to audio and tactile cues in order to know when to hit and when to block punches of an AI opponent, which in turn reads the blind player’s actions using Microsoft Kinect. There are so many research issues involved, but we hope to produce a robust product within a year or two.

Hats off to all the valiant persons with disabilities in the Philippines, Asia, and the world!

(Photos are numbered 38 and 34 in the Aug 29, 2012 “In Focus with Alan Taylor” article of The Atlantic. Said article has 38 other cool photos so check them out!)

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