Thoughts from the Homefront
November was a relatively quiet month for me. I spent the entire month grounded, not 10,000 feet up in the air bouncing from hotel to hotel. It was wonderful! I honestly thought I was going to go stir crazy after the first week, but I was pleasantly surprised by my ability to stay happily in one location. It was also refreshing and exciting to sleep in my own bed and to be able to catch up with friends in person!
The month was spent just honing in on my training and knocking things off of my "to-do" list so that I can enter this last month prior to world championships without a lot of stuff hanging over my head. I wrapped up my semester of school and took care of all of the errands that when you live up in the air, are difficult to find the time to get done – such as car appointments, going to the post office etc. How do people find time to do things like that? It baffles me! Overall, the month recharged me and I feel rested, relaxed and ready for the next two months to come!
I also spent some time following the news and reading up on perceptions of disability and of Paralympic sport. It is always something, as an athlete with a disability myself, that I have a heightened awareness for and certainly a vested interest in.
There was an article published online about a high school student who uses a power wheelchair who scored a touchdown for his team. While the sport teams and the school ought to be applauded for their inclusivity and for providing the student with this opportunity, the athlete in me struggled with the presentation and several aspects of the story.
I was left wondering what this story was really teaching the general public about sports for people with disabilities. The article and accompanying video made it seem like it was a cliché sad sob story of, "what a special opportunity for a poor kid in a wheelchair" and not really about sport, even though the headline read "High school football player in wheelchair scores touchdown." In the video, we see the high school student, a user of a power wheelchair, be handed the football and allowed, unimpeded by either team to roll into the end zone to score. There was no defense, no physical skill truly involved in the event, which, in my mind, are critical components of sport.
Maybe it wasn't supposed to be about sport? But, why is it that at the end of 2010, the stories about athletes with disabilities end up in the lifestyle section, where we applaud participation in sport, but fail to grasp and comprehend the amazing athletic accomplishments of these athletes?
Something else that happened to me this month was that Facebook partnered with Wikipedia. They automatically integrated Wikipedia pages into a business, celebrity page on Facebook. I mention this because the evening I discovered this, I was imported as an interest! Not as an athlete as many of my teammates and competitors were, an interest! I contacted Facebook to try to have this resolved, as clearly I am an athlete not an interest, but have not had much success yet.
What this high school student did, being allowed to score a touchdown for his team, was not an athletic endeavor; it was a human interest story. I am sure it opened a lot of doors for this student socially and was rewarding to feel included, but taken out of context, and presented as sport for people with disabilities, it fails to tell the whole story.
Athletes such as this student are eligible to compete in the Paralympic Games in a variety of sports, including boccia, field events and wheelchair tennis to name a few. There are legitimate sporting opportunities at the recreational, high school, national and international levels!
Stories such as this one show me that we as a nation still have a long way to go in terms of educating others about Paralympic sport and about sport opportunities for people with disabilities. The onus does not rest solely on the general public to learn about Paralympic sport, but also on athletes like myself, program coordinators, recreation & parks departments and coaches to ensure athletes with disabilities are aware of existing sport opportunities.
For this student, perhaps football is not his sport. This is not discriminatory, as my roommate and I discussed on this issue, you don't see the NBA putting the short guy in the starting lineup just because it's his dream! Some people are built for certain sports, and others aren't. Inclusion isn't about being patronizing, it's about giving the same opportunities. He should be allowed to try out for the football team, no question, but maybe it's not the best outlet for him to participate in sport. There are always new sport opportunities arising for people with disabilities. This month alone I decided to try out a dry-land cross country ski! Who knows, maybe Sochi 2014 is in my future?
One of the larger questions this article raised for me is the issue of inclusion versus separate events. It is something that I, as an athlete with a disability, struggle with. Personally, I think there is a space and needed space for both. Meaning, I see value in athletes with disabilities being integrated on their high school sport teams, or community teams.
However, the benefit is more at a social level to be on a team with your peers, but from a competition standpoint, the number of athletes with disabilities is significantly less, and therefore competing on teams like that presents a whole host of other challenges, especially when the equipment used is different—you wouldn't have a cyclist competing in the running division of the marathon, for example.
But, the existing competitions and disability-specific divisions or competitions create a space for this high level of competition. I also feel that sport is sport, and there is absolutely no reason why an able-bodied person cannot enter a race in the wheelchair division and race in a racing wheelchair! Sport is sport! Some sports that operate with a factor system would be able to accommodate this quite easily, such as skiing for example, where a raw time is multiplied by a set number based on one's functional ability level. It raises questions on how one would be able to implement this idea in other sports, but it shouldn't be ruled out!
On a personal level, I benefitted from both my disability-specific sports teams growing up and being a part of the Waterville Valley Ski Academy for able-bodied athletes where I was integrated onto the team. I had the opportunity to race in both ski races designed for able-bodied athletes and those that were disability-specific. The benefits I got from each were tremendous! Entering an able-bodied race, I was able to first educate others about disabled sports. I was also able to incorporate more competitions into my season; disabled races are scattered throughout the nation and it was not always feasible to get to them all, so by being integrated, I was still able to compete and use those competitions as checkpoints to see how my training was going.
On the flipside, my disability-specific sport teams were filled with other benefits. I was able to be on a team with other athletes who were disabled, we had coaches and instructors who were adept at understanding adaptive equipment. We had an established pathway of recreational sport to junior level competition and ultimately to the Paralympic level. Being on a sports team with other disabled athletes gives you the chance to see how you stack up against those who are in your classification, instead of racing solely against yourself or your own times. The social benefit to this type of team is also huge, and qualitatively different than the social benefits to being on an able-bodied sports team. The benefit is that you don't have to explain yourself or your disability or prove your athletic prowess to your peers, because they know you can do sport, disability and all, because they do it too!
I am glad that disability-sport issues are getting out in the news more, but there's still ways to make it better. If we all can take on the challenge of educating one new person a week about the Paralympic Games and sporting opportunities for people with disabilities, maybe we can change perceptions! Who's up for the challenge?