If you stop and think about it, our everyday lives are made up of little tasks we do each day. We get up, we groom and dress ourselves, we clean house. We go to work, take our kids to school, and have some leisure time. Many of us work out in order to stay fit and healthy.
Workouts are a big part of my everyday, though not quite as big as they were about 10 years ago. Back then I was in my “nearly anorexic” phase. Now, I try to mix stationary biking, Zumba, and jogging with days off and a healthy relationship with chocolate (I have a sweet tooth). I also sometimes like to watch people compete athletically.
It occurs to me that, even though I want to be healthy, athleticism has never been part of my daily life. It’s never been something I enjoyed or pursued with passion. Some of that is non-disability related; I’m pretty sure I was created to be an artsy bookworm rather than an athlete. But sometimes I can’t help looking at kids, teens, and adults with athletic gifts and wondering if I missed out. I’m not referring to jealousy. I’m referring to the part of me that says, “I wish I could do that. Would I be brave or strong enough to do it? Could I, with modifications?”
There was a time I thought I could do anything, because I didn’t think cerebral palsy mattered. I thought it was just something I went to therapy for once a month, and the reason I had to wear leg braces. I don’t know if I thought CP would go away, but I saw no reason I couldn’t do everything exactly the way other kids did. It wasn’t on the radar.
Back then–when I was in late elementary/middle school and my little brother was in early elementary–we watched a lot of Nickelodeon when we could get Dad to turn off the news. Two popular game shows we liked were Legends of the Hidden Temple and Guts. I especially enjoyed the latter, particularly rooting for the female athletes, of which there never seemed to be enough. And even though I would’ve been afraid of the heights and water of some events, I still wondered in the back of my mind if I could do it. I wanted people to know I had guts. I wanted to wear a blue, red, or purple uniform and have a cool nickname. I wanted to win a gold, silver, or bronze medal just like in the Olympics (the show was basically the Olympics for kids, after all).
But I never told anybody that, and they never would’ve figured it out. Athletics wasn’t enjoyable for me. The only exposure I got was in P.E., where I was either constantly corrected or separated from other kids to do inappropriately modified activities. Special Olympics was not an option at the time and even if it was, I’d have been made fun of for competing against kids with cognitive disabilities. In fact, I probably would have been judged “not disabled enough” (and how weird is that)? By the time I was in late middle school, I was afraid of anything having to do with sports, shy, overweight, and lacking in confidence.
Of course, I got through that. I found exercises that worked for me, and discovered I enjoyed competing against myself much more than I did competing on a team. I know I have the spirit of an athlete even if I can’t jump off a 7-foot bridge and hit a target, or collect buoys on my arms while swimming through simulated waves. While I’m always working to make my body better, and to balance body, mind, and soul, I’m okay with not being a superstar athlete.
I wonder though, how many kids with disabilities are out there right now who have felt like me? How many enjoy Special Olympics but want to compete with kids of all abilities? How many want to move beyond sports and games “just for” people with disabilities, and test what they can do? How many once thought they could do things, only to hear, “No; your legs aren’t strong enough and never will be. You can’t swim well enough; you’d drown and die.” (My mom actually once used the phrase “drown and die.”) “You can’t judge distance well enough, or move fast enough, for that obstacle course.”
I’m not suggesting we let people pretend disabilities don’t exist, for the sake of athleticism. I personally am glad somebody told me it would be dangerous to attempt the obstacles I saw on television, as well as some of the stuff played in gym class (for example, because of my lack of depth perception, you will never see me playing dodgeball). What I am suggesting is, let’s take another look at athleticism. Why is it a door closed to so many PWDs? Why are their only options segregated sports (because as much as I respect what Special Olympics is trying to do, they are segregated).
There are people with disabilities who have made great strides in athletics, and they should be celebrated. Too often though, their accomplishments are made less because “Oh, you know, that’s in the *disabled* arena, not the *real* one.” Inspiration porn runs rampant. Many kids with disabilities learn to eschew athletics, so they end up under- or overweight. And then they’re blamed for not being active. Do me a favor, okay? Stop blaming PWDs for not doing something, when you haven’t given them the proper avenues to do it.
I say we need to bring ability back into athletics. We need to slowly, but significantly, move away from segregated sports and encourage people of all abilities to compete together. Modifications can be made. Sometimes it’s hard, but if people think long enough and try enough times, they’ll figure something out. Come on guys, we can put a man on the moon. We’ve perfected penicillin. We figured out we don’t have to run around in loincloths grunting at each other. Surely to heaven we can figure out a person with CP to compete on a TAB sports team, with help. It’s already being done in schools across the country; why not move it into competition? For example, let’s say an ambulatory person with a limp or club foot wants to figure skate. Can he or she rely on moves that would not hurt that foot? Could a blind swimmer swim competitively, if given modifications to help him or her “see?”
We also need to start telling people with disabilities that they can be strong, be healthy, and be winners. Too often, even benevolently, the message PWDs hear is, “It’s okay for you to lose. It’s enough that you tried.” I cannot tell you how many times I heard “trying is enough” as a kid, and how much I came to hate the word “try.” It was a weaponized word, used either to try to force me to do something I couldn’t, or to reassure me it was okay to fail because I was disabled. I didn’t want to try–I wanted to win. Other PWDs, I bet, feel the same way. Stop telling us to try. Stop patting us on the head and saying trying is enough. Tell us we can WIN! That way, even if we don’t, we’ll know we’re capable of it. And no, PWDs don’t have to win just because they have disabilities. That’s called cheating. But they deserve a fair shot at it, and they deserve for their shots to come from real contests, not segregated ones made laughably easy (yes, I have seen this happen). People with disabilities can be held to high athletic standards if coaches, teachers, parents, and loved ones let it happen.
Finally, athletes with disabilities should be allowed to experience athleticism the way their peers without disabilities do. Example: a couple of years ago, one school decided it was going to have a “special needs basketball team” (not going into the logistics of that; you’ve heard it enough). The athletes on this team were good. They knew the rules, how to legitimately play, and how to win–and they did win games. But their players were not allowed to have letter jackets–because they had disabilities. Other such examples exist, such as players with disabilities only getting participation trophies, or PWDs being allowed to play in one game, for five minutes, when the home team is already kicking butt, just so they can be “inspiring.”
Foul! Flag on the play! Go to the penalty box! Come on, folks. I understand athletics can be dangerous and fast-paced, and that you might be protective of athletes with disabilities. But if those athletes are going to be part of a team, for good golly sakes, let them be part of the team! They are there to learn the game, learn teamwork, and enjoy camaraderie, not fill your water bottles and your inspiration tank. (By the way, that goes for “letting” an athlete with a disability be scorekeeper or referee, too. If they didn’t volunteer, don’t just stick them in that position).
Too long, the door to athletics has been closed to PWDs. Let’s open it, wide! Let’s ask PWDs what they’d like to play, whether they’d prefer team or solo sports, and what we can do to make it happen. Let’s give them chances to compete for real accolades. Let’s let them be part of our teams, with the cool uniforms and the cool nicknames and the inside jokes. It’ll take guts, but I think we’ve all got those.