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From weakness to super strength: Interview with Michel Fornasier, aka Bionicman

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Michel Fornasier, aged 42, and his "Give Children a Hand Foundation" are dedicated to assisting children living with a physical disability. The certified financial specialist was born without a right hand himself. He hid this for 35 years until he outed himself and decided to make strength out of his weakness. This was how Bionicman was born. Bionicman engages in prevention work in schools and organizations with the aim of making children aware of bullying, as well as preventing and countering it. He has a bionic prosthetic hand and acts as an ambassador for this modern aid. We spoke to the friendly superhero from Fribourg. 

AXA’s brand promise is "Know you can": Believe in yourself, in other words. What does this slogan mean for you personally? 

Living without a right hand is in itself not a serious disability, but it is one that is really obvious. I hid my stump for a long time – the first 35 years of my life. It was unpleasant and embarrassing to be different – especially at the outdoor pool in summer. Seven years ago I changed my mindset. Bionicman was born and my weakness became my greatest strength. We very often erect boundaries in our minds. You only have to believe in yourself if you want to overcome them. 

You started off making a career for yourself in the financial sector. Now you are Bionicman, a children's hero. How did you come to undergo this transformation?

For a long time, I worked as a client advisor in a bank, which was a job that I liked. I later switched to Amnesty International and Save the Children, because the world of NGOs and their social aspects had always interested me. In 2016, I came up with the idea of establishing my own charity called "Give Children a Hand" for the first time. We produce prosthetic hands for children without hands using 3D printers. I initially thought of this as a mere experiment or sabbatical; but it took up more and more of my time. I have since been a superhero visiting schools, convalescence clinics and children's hospitals. My aim is to make children aware of people with a physical or cognitive disability who are part of our society. I focus especially on preventing bullying. So I am now an entrepreneur – although it is more of a vocation than a profession for me. 

Michel Fornasier, aka Bionicman

You have made a major step, given up a secure job and set up your own foundation. Would you encourage other people to put more effort into pursuing their dreams? 

Each and every one of us harbors the potential of self-fulfillment. It is important to believe in your dreams and visions. It is obviously easier to have a fixed salary at the end of the month and enjoy the security this brings. Becoming self-employed involved taking on a certain degree of risk. It wasn't easy, but it did open up a lot of opportunities. 

Do you have a motto in life or a principle that you live by? 

I get my credo from Peter Pan: "Believe in yourself and never grow up." This is also Bionicman's motto. 

Getting my first prosthetic hand from an orthopedic surgeon at the age of five was a scary experience, because plastic legs and hands were lying all over the place. Being a small boy, this scared me and went on to influence how I felt about prosthetic limbs. Today we want to use state-of-the-art 3D printers to produce prosthetic hands for children that are like colorful toys. Children are involved in the process and can help create their "magic hands" themselves. A boy recently asked for a prosthetic hand in "Hulk green". So we printed all the parts of the hand in his favorite color and built in some additional elements to make it glow in the dark. The boy was overjoyed and had tears in his eyes. Kids view such a hand as a lot more than just a piece of plastic; it is like armor that protects them from bullying and boosts their self-confidence. This is what our work is all about: giving children a feeling of self esteem. Our prosthetic hands have more in common with Peter Pan than Captain Hook! (laughs)

"It is important to believe in your dreams and visions."

Michel Fornasier, aka Bionicman

Michel Fornasier

Which people have inspired you the most? 

I am really impressed by children with physical disabilities who fully come to terms with their situation and have absolutely no problems dealing with it – particularly when they become teenagers. I myself was only able to do this at the age of 35.

Every superhero has their very own super powers. Which powers does Bionicman have? 

The index finger of my prosthetic hand has been furnished with a special cover to enable me to use a tablet or smartphone via a touchscreen. Children ask me if this hand has super powers and whether I can shoot out a thread from my finger like Spider-Man. When I initially told them this wasn't the case, they were all disappointed. At some point I started to answer: "That may very well be...." The children then ran to their parents full of euphoria and told them: "When I grow up, I want to have a magic hand like that!" And that was the idea behind Bionicman. If you are asked 500 times whether you have super powers, there comes a point when you start to believe you do. (laughs) 

A good friend of mine, David Boller, worked for 25 years in the US for comic publishers Marvel and DC Comics. He drew figures like Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman. David and I decided to create a superhero with a disability. A person generally becomes a superhero by having a special gift. In the case of Bionicman, this gift is his disability – i.e. not having a hand. In this way Bionicman's super power is being able to transform alleged weaknesses into strengths. 

How progressive do you think we are in Switzerland when it comes to integrating people with disabilities? What still needs to be done?

I think that people with an disability don't want to be treated any differently than anybody else. We are all equally special, whether or not we have a disability. There is obviously still a lot that has to be done. But much has already been accomplished, which is really great.

Events such as the Cybathlon or Paralympics contribute a lot to ensuring that those with disabilities are included in our society. And social media has brought the world a bit closer together. There are numerous self-help groups, e.g. for parents with children with dysmelia, where they can engage in dialog with other parents. This is invaluable. 

"Mascots such as Max, superheroes like Bionicman or cartoons are a wonderful way to help children use their 'gift' to turn weakness into super strength."

Michel Fornasier, aka Bionicman

How would you advise people to interact with people suffering from an disability? 

Asking and offering your help is always nice and attentive. Very often our inhibitions stop us from offering help to those in a wheelchair. A good friend of mine who is in a wheelchair recently told me that people have good intentions and want to help her cross the street – even though she doesn't want to cross it, and is just waiting for the bus.

When I go shopping in the supermarket, I am often asked if I need any help packing my bags. I personally find this really helpful and nice. I generally answer "no, but thanks a lot". When I am tired, I answer "yes, that would be great" every now and again. 

Mascot Max the Badger from the AXA Foundation for Prevention goes to schools and instructs kids about road safety. You are also present in your capacity as Bionicman and make children aware of certain dangers. How important is the work done by this foundation?

Max is really good at his job! Working with mascots like Max and superheroes like Bionicman or comics are great ways of reaching children and drawing their attention to important issues. Children are our future. This is where we should pinpoint our awareness work. I think this works best if you are physically present and address the subject in a playful way.

What can we expect from Bionicman in 2020 and beyond? What are your plans for the future? 

An animated Bionicman film series is in the pipeline. What's more, we feature female superheroine Bionica right at the start. Bionica's real name is Romina Manser and she was born without a left hand. Bionica's involvement is really important because Dr. Bully has some nasty tricks up his sleeve. We came up with the idea of creating Bionica in response to questions asked by a lot of girls about whether Bionicman had a superheroine girlfriend by his side. It is important to us that our stories feature no violence and that all the figures exist in real life.

The third volume is coming out at the end of the year to follow in the footsteps of volumes 1 and 2. 

 

Find out more about Michel Fornasier here.

Find out more about Bionicman here

Find out more about the Give Children a Hand Foundation here.

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