By Albert J. Rizzi, M.Ed.
While much of the world is riveted on the start of the 2021 Olympic Games going on in Tokyo, the use of cardboard beds for Olympians, the shorts worn by the Norwegian women’s beach handball team, and the concerns over Covid on the rise, very few people outside of the disability community are aware that the 2021 Summer Paralympic Games will be running after the Olympic closing ceremonies from August 24 – September 5.
The Paralympic Games are a relatively new celebration of amateur sports competition. In 1960, 400 athletes in wheelchairs participated in what many see as the first sports competition of its type. In 1976, the competitive categories expanded to include athletes across the Ability spectrum and not just those using wheelchairs. At the 1976 Paralympics, there were 1,600 Paralympians competed. In 1988, the Summer Paralympics were launched to run adjacent to the Olympic Games, using the same venue, facilities, and sports arenas. By this time, the Paralympics included over 3,000 athletes competing for the gold. This year, Tokyo will no doubt welcome a record number of competitors who happen to have disabilities despite the distractions and Covid concerns looming over the 2021 Games.
Just as it is with any other international sports competition, the Paralympians are athletes at the top of their game. Years of training, dedication, and sacrifice got them to where they are today. That means enduring financial and physical pain just for a chance to participate in the games, never mind the possibility of achieving an elusive bronze, silver, or gold medal.
I have a lot of respect for Olympians in general, and admittedly never thought about Paralympians or the Paralympics until I joined the disability community. I remember watching competitors like Mark Spitz, Greg Louganis, Carl Lewis, Kurt Thomas, Bonnie Blair, Nancy Kerrigan, and Amy Chow going for the gold after all their hard work and dedication to their sport and their craft. Like many of their Olympian brothers and sisters, Paralympians are just as dedicated and driven. Paralympians, in addition to overcoming competitive challenges to qualify to represent Team USA, often must deal with unique individual struggles before they even step onto the field, court, track, pool et cetera. PWD need to overcome major hurdles before them even though they are not competing in any Track and Field events (pun intended).
I will give credit where credit is due, but I must give an “’A’ for effort” to the Paralympians. Not only do they need to overcome “normal” challenges to become Olympians, but they also need to contend with the added stress of executing in a world that bars them from both physical and virtual forums alike. Many of our training facilities and gyms are not accessible or usable by people with disabilities, making it difficult, at best, to train and go for the gold. This is unfortunate especially given our nation is celebrating the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and we are still fighting for inclusion and recognition as a valued community of people that is 1.4 billion strong across the globe.
Unfortunately, Ableism takes its swipe at those of us from the disability community day in and day out. Whether it is in acquiring an education, seeking, and retaining gainful employment, or just competing in the sport of our choice, we face what some would consider insurmountable hurdles as we run the marathon called life. Most elite athletes perform at a level that surpasses others who are, as I have said frequently, “Temporarily Able”, and the same is true for those of us from the disability community. Our Paralympians are those elite competitors that rise above their challenges and circumstances to reach heights in their events just as their non-disabled brothers and sisters have done for decades. The amount of grit, determination, and “try and try again” attitude can be found in each Olympian regardless of Ability. But to highlight the drive and determination, and unfortunately, the slings and arrows of discrimination that some Paralympians face in the pursuit of their dreams, I share the 3 following stories.
Paralympian swimmer Jessica Long recently disclosed that she is regularly harassed and shamed by self-appointed “handicap police” for using a handicapped-accessible parking space even though she has no legs. This winner of 13 Paralympian gold medals is young and vibrant, that doesn’t mean that her prosthetics aren’t heavy and don’t cause her pain when she uses them.
Another Paralympian swimmer, Becca Meyers, dropped out of the games because organizers would not allow her mom to travel with her as a personal care assistant because of COVID restrictions. Meyers, who is blind and deaf, was expected to share a personal care assistant who she did not know with 33 other athletes. As digital sports editor for washingtonpost.com, Dan Steinberg, pointed out, “Golfers can bring their caddies to the Olympics. Equestrian athletes can bring their grooms. But Becca Myers, a record-setting deaf-blind swimmer, can’t bring her personal care assistant, who is also her mother. This is nuts…”
You would think that Paralympian officials would be mindful of and sensitive to the needs of the athletes. But if you thought that then you would be wrong. There are countless stories to tell about the discrimination they faced or how they were barred from even practicing, let alone competing, beyond those that come with being an elite competitive athlete.
Recently, I caught an interview with another swimmer and Paralympian gold medalist, Mallory Weggemann. This will be Weggemann’s third appearance at the games. At the age of 18, she was paralyzed from the waist down during an epidural procedure to relieve back pain and, unfortunately, is still working through additional pain and adversity. Mallory’s story is recounted in her book, “Limitless– The power of Hope and Resilience to overcome circumstance”. She says that she wrote the book for people who are looking for direction after facing adversity. Mallory adds, “While those moments shape who we are, they don’t have to define us.”
Indeed, we should not be ‘dis’ labeled and be defined by socially-imposed fears and antiquated low expectations and perceptions about our ability. However, it can absolutely shape who we choose to become if we let it. We can also be inspired to be the best we can become in all we do and apply the same grit and determination that these athletes do. I will remind you that we can draw inspiration to be our best by just about anyone or anything we choose, including any person who happens to have a disability. PWD often must do more with less to go above and beyond just to make it through the day, let alone bring home the gold.
Incidentally, Mallory Weggemann is also the host of The Able Channel presents “Together We Are Able” which includes yours truly as one of the powerful people from the disability community who are able! “Together We Are Able” premieres on NBC, August 22nd just after the closing ceremonies of the Olympics and two days before the start of the Paralympics.
What is great about these Paralympics is that they are getting more coverage than ever before. To its credit, NBC Olympics, the division tasked with sharing the Olympics and Paralympics with the world for NBCUniversal, is making it easier for the next generation of Paralympians to be inspired. They offered more accessibility coverage to the summer Olympics and plan to do the same for the Paralympic Games with more closed captioning, audio description, and digital content accessibility on its broadcast and cable networks. Also, there is improved web content accessibility, including keyboard navigation, color contrast, and support for screen readers on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app.
Don’t get too comfortable reveling in the spirit of the summer games, the Winter Paralympics are being held in Beijing, China from March 4-13, 2022. That’s just a few months away!
At My Blind Spot, we work with organizations to help them achieve their full potential and embracing of authentic inclusion by revealing the power and abilities that are abundant throughout the disability community. Much as we profess on our podcast, AccessAbility Works, we all need to understand, appreciate what possibilities for accessibility means for people with disabilities. Just like coaches do for athletes—My Blind Spot guides companies and organizations of all sizes to achieve gold when it comes to authentic inclusion of Ability alongside Race, Gender, Orientation, and Religion in both our social and corporate cultures. Just like the various hurdles these elite athletes face and overcome each day, the organizations we coach are always reaching for the gold when it comes to true inclusion and digital equity for the 62 million Americans who happen to have a disability. Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if your organization needs some coaching.