I recently wrote a general post about the insidious undertones of inspiration porn. In it I explain why even using noteworthy accomplishments by disabled people as easy inspiration is problematic. I talk about how difficult and expensive it can be for disabled people to even participate in athletic endeavours. To give some further context, I am going to describe my person history of trying to participate in sports and exercise.
I have always liked the idea of being an accomplished athlete but it has never been something I really worked towards. Whether this is because I had no real opportunities or lacked the drive and support network to do so, I can’t really say. It is most likely some combination of the two. I do know that when I enjoy an activity I will show up and continue working towards getting better.
Without further ado
Athletics in early childhood
I like many toddler girls was placed by my parents in ballet class. I have few firm memories of ballet except for one nightmarish recital where I got confused and exited our performance of “Me and My Teddy Bear” on the wrong side of the stage and got lost.
This had nothing to do with my disabilities and at that age everyone is pretty uncoordinated so I don’t think my cerebral palsy really impacted my ability to participate. So I guess baby ballet was a win.
Jazz Dance and Tap Dancing (all one class)
I was a little bit older here somewhere between the ages of 5-7. It wasn’t a competitive class so my lack of coordination wasn’t really a barrier to participation, so the class itself was fine. The problem stemmed from the fact that though other children my age could tie their shoes, I could not. This was not an issue for the jazz portion where the shoes were just elasticized ballet shoes dyed black. Very small tap shoes did come with elastic straps but unfortunately for me, my feet were one size to big. All the tap shoes that fit me required being tied. I ended up having to wear to small shoes so that no one would be burdened with having to help me with laces. Let me tell you dancing in to small shoes is not comfortable. I did not continue dancing for long.
I had no particular interest in soccer so I didn’t try very hard. My suckiness is entirely on me.
Before I was even allowed to enroll in a gymnastics class, I had to undergo a personal strength test with a coach to determine if my cerebral palsy would get in the way. I passed the test, though my performance was affected by my disability. I couldn’t climb the hanging rope and I had to use the lowest balance bar out of fear that I would fall. It was the first time, I was aware that I could not just do everything my friends could. There were some places I might have to prove myself and that there were instances where I might fail.
Middle childhood to teen years.
High School Gym Class
I have always felt that the physical education curriculum is deeply flawed regardless of disability. It sets up standards of success but rarely has any coaching on how to reach those goals. They want you to run stairs for 5 minutes but don’t build you up to it. They just put you in front of some stair and say go, then grade on the outcome. Repeat this with pretty much any fitness goal like running 2 kilometres without any training and grading you based on your time.
This system deeply disadvantages anyone who doesn’t have a history of athletic participation for whatever reason. There is no build up training.
My high school made it worse by adding competition to the mix. They created a publicly viewable chart where they ranked our performance in everything. They did use pseudonyms but functionally everyone knew who everyone else was. This was supposed to foster competition but instead just showed who was on sports teams because they dominated the top tier. They had athletic training, they had built up the stamina that those of us without the skills to participate in competitive sports did not have and the school did not provide. Not surprisingly I placed dead last. There were activities I couldn’t a thus received no points for and I didn’t have the athletic training to run stair for extended perios of time or run long distances without walking.
Gym was a combination of having both inconsiderate teachers who pitted students against each other and poor curriculum which favours the already fit. This kind of environment is not conducive to athletic success for disabled people so it fails.
Kayaking (specifically for disabled kids)
They put us in supposedly untippable and unsinkable kayaks. I can attest from personal experience that though they are very difficult to tip, they can sink. Luckily this happened in a swimming pool where they were making sure we knew what to do if we did tip. So I tipped it on purpose, my ability to sink the thing just shows that I have skills. I was the only person who pulled that off. Safety training over, they let us lose on a local lake, no real training and only basic oversight.
In typical fashion, I was the one who demonstrated that they should plan alternate activities for windy days after I was pulled several kilometres from the marina in heavy winds. They refused to tow me back and I had to fight the current as two supervisors followed alongside in the comfort of a motorboat. They planned alternate activities for bad weather days after that.
It was an enjoyable activity but it was not always well executed.
I loved Judo, particularly my first beginner class. The instructor was nice and on the rare occasions I couldn’t do something, he just let me sit out. I excelled in that class gained my yellow belt and graduated to the intermediate class.
I did alright in the intermediate class for a while. It had different instructors. I still really loved doing Judo but the instructors weren’t as personable and there were more students. One day we were doing a training exercise where I knew best case scenario that I would break a couple fingers, worse case, I would break my wrist. I decided to sit out. One of the instructors noticed I wasn’t participating and asked me why.
I naively thought that if I explained that I feared injury because of my cerebral palsy, he would understand and move on. I though worse case scenario, not learning this maneuvre would keep me from advancing to a higher belt but that I could still participate. I was wrong.
He got angry and told me that I damn well had to participate or I would be kicked out of class.
I was shocked, not only at his threat but at his language. I had never had an adult swear at me before.
I continued to refuse, I was more afraid of injury. He got even angrier at being disobeyed and told that in order to stay in class I had to run up and down the hall until they moved on. At this point, I was actually frightened so I did run laps in the hall, while he stood guard and glared at me. At this point I was in tears. It was my last Judo class. I was not kicked out but the stress associated with not knowing how I would be treated made it impossible for me to return to something that previous to that day gave me a lot of joy.
Tae Kwon Do (specifically for disabled people)
The local rehabilitation hospital offered a Tae Kwon Do class. I lasted one session because it was immediately apparent that the point was not to teach us martial arts. In fact the instructor had taken only one class himself. It was just a way to get kids with disabilities masquerading as something else. I had no interest in being in a class where the official objective was hidden and hidden behind an activity that I wanted to learn but clearly wasn’t going to.
Therapeutic Horseback Riding (specifically for disabled people)
I have the personal distinction of being the only participant in the history of the program to fall off a horse (which was cantering at the time).
I love horseback riding. I begged for riding lessons as a kid (they were to expensive). Finally as a teenager I got a medical referral to therapeutic riding. It was still expensive but the expense could be rationalized as medical. It was a good program, they taught you how to brush the horse, pick the hooves and put on the saddle and bridal.
They were also obsessive about safety. Usually each participant had someone leading the horse and someone standing of either side to spot you in case of a fall. I quickly was allowed to ride without the spotters and eventually without the guide as well.
One day, I was considered safe enough to trot on my own. The horse ended up in a canter and when I pulled up on the reins to get it to slow down, the rein snapped, I became unbalanced and fell off. I was fine. I got back on the horse and finished out my week of sessions.
I would have continued riding but the combination of the cost and the fact that the location was difficult to get to, I had to stop. Getting there was so inconvenient that one day my mother had to drop me off two hours early because she had competing engagements. I helped out in the stable and had to put up with one of the worker’s less than informed view of my cerebral palsy. She was convinced that I was born premature and that this was why, I was disabled. She didn’t seem to believe me when I told her I was actually born after my due date and that there was no known cause of my brain damage. She became flustered and changed the subject (that she had chosen in the first place).
I think the program’s coordinator was more traumatized by my fall than I was. She even called me a year later to confirm that I had not developed a fear of horses and to make me promise that I would ride again. I did promise and I would love to but I have simply not had the money or opportunity so thus far the promise goes unfulfilled.
At the university where I did my undergrad, part of our mandatory fees went towards use of the school’s athletic centre. The logic being everyone had the option to use it. If people chose not to, it was their loss. I would have liked to use the university gym. It was conveniently located and I could use it around my classes. Unfortunately the set up was terribly inaccessible. I am limited in what equipment I can use. I have a permanent shoulder injury and I risk over extending my knee if I do certain things. Unfortunately the gym rules state that you can’t book equipment in advance and more often than not, everything I could use was booked up when I arrived. Often my only option was walking or running on the track.
With so few options I stopped going and instead paid more money for a membership at the YMCA.
I had a YMCA membership for years and went regularly. As long as I went at non peak hours. I was assured access to a variety of equipment, I could safely use and have varied work out sessions.
Most yoga is to focused on standing positions and balancing so I avoid those classes. I however love Yin Yoga which is most often practiced either sitting or laying down. I have however had mixed experiences depending on who is running the class. A good instructor will demonstrate how a pose is typically done and then demonstrate variations if you aren’t flexible enough to achieve it. There is no judgement about where you are skillwise or where you can reasonably expect to progress to.
I have however had the experience of an instructor who demonstrated the typical pose and then as an after thought said “oh and I guess if there’s something wrong with you, you can these variations”. I never went to another class led by her again.
The people who run activities that are not geared specifically towards disabled people are really gatekeepers and they have a lot of influence over whether you can participate and that goes beyond just getting in the door and registering for classes. Sometimes even activities geared towards disabled people have hoops to jump through. I needed a doctor’s referal to do therapeutic riding.
Bad experiences can ruin how you remember an otherwise positive program. I loved Judo but I felt shut out and actually began crying just remembering what happened. This was nearly fifteen years ago.
I have had good experiences but I also recognize that as someone who can walk, I experience even fewer barriers than others whose mobility may be more limited than mine.
I write this to give personal context to how hard it can be for disabled people to succeed in athletics even if they just plan on doing it recreationally and have no aspirations of goals like the paralympics. This is why I think success stories need context to not only show others possible pathways to success but also to show how much luck plays into it.
Failure to succeed is not just about whether someone didn’t have the ambition it’s about whether they can find people to help them achieve it.