Disability is Not the Bogeyman, Stop Using it as a Threat

About a month ago this video of Cosmologist Stephen Hawking was released onto the internet.

The video is not a lecture on physics as on might expect from someone who is perhaps the most famous scientist alive today. Instead, it is a video decrying the horrors of the “obesity epidemic”.

Vague statements are made about the dangers of being overweight or obese. I’m not going get into the science of health and weight. It’s complicated and contentious. I’m an academic in the humanities in no small part because of my total lack of aptitude for science.

Instead, I am going to look at the choice to use Stephen Hawking as the spokesperson for this message and some of the claims he makes in the video.

Stephen Hawking is widely considered to be one of the most intelligent people on the planet. This reputation tends to give him a great deal of influence. This is a problem. I’m not saying he isn’t extremely smart but a high level of intelligence does not translate into expertise in every subject. Stephen Hawking is not a medical doctor. His presence in the video serves two purposes.

  1. Using this veneer of expertise to lend credibility to the message in the video.
  2. Using the image of his disabled body as both metaphor and threat.

In the context of the claims of this video Stephen Hawking does not, in fact, know what he’s talking about. Obesity is framed as primarily an issue of laziness. A problem that could be easily fixed if people only had the strength of will to exercise and eat better.

The reality is far more complicated. Access to healthy food and exercise are not necessarily easily attainable.

In order to eat healthy food, you need to be able to both have access to it and be able to afford it. This is a major barrier for many people living in poverty.

Not being able either access or afford healthy food is not a=actually evidence of laziness.

Similarly, people need to have access to safe and effective exercise. As a friend of mine pointed out on Twitter,

I hate that no one will notice that he’s never lived somewhere that’s too dangerous to let ur kids play outside (link)

It’s not always as simple as just getting out and walking.

Then there’s the issue of time, depending on issues like work schedules, parenting, and housekeeping. Finding time to actually exercise can be difficult for many and none of the reasons come down to laziness.

These issues are additionally complicated if, like Hawking, you happen to be disabled. Access to healthy food isn’t just an issue of cost and availability. There is also the issue of physical accessibility of the food.

Access to exercise can be even more limited.

In the video Hawking says “And for what it’s worth, how being sedentary has become a major health problem, is beyond my understanding.”

Some possible answers are increased mechanization requiring less human involvement, more work that is heavily based around computers, etc. None of these things are inherently caused by laziness but rather the adoption of technology without considering and planning for the consequences of a widespread shift to more sedentary work.

Add that to issues of poverty and you have the makings of a widespread socially constructed and maintained problem where people don’t have access to healthy lifestyle options.

It’s an issue that won’t be fixed by labeling the issue one of laziness and trying to shame people who very well be unable to change their circumstances.

None of these concepts are I expect beyond Stephen Hawkings ability to grasp but then he’s a cosmologist and not a social scientist.

Then there is the issue of using Hawking in a video decrying a sedentary lifestyle at all. He is after all paralyzed from ALS. The video uses this and it horrifies me that Hawking let them do it.

He is shown immobile in his wheelchair opining about the laziness of others. The unspoken message is clear “how dare you lazy people choose to be sedentary, I don’t even have the choice”.

He’s used as an odd and ultimately false morality tale. Even if access to healthy food and exercise weren’t more complicated than the video lets on, ALS is a genetic condition which is not caused by diet or lack of exercise.

Yet, people are supposed to look at him and see a horrifying alternative life. They’re supposed to decide not to waste the opportunity to move because some people can’t.

This message entirely relies on the widespread adoption of the idea that a life with disability is one that is not worth living. That is a big problem that extends beyond Hawking and his personal views on his quality of life.

Stephen Hawking in this video is not just speaking for himself, he is exploiting stereotypes about the disabled experience and presenting them with all the power of his influence and reputation.

Disabled people have been thrown under the bus to promote exercise before. It often positions the idea of disability as a threat. The thing that will happen to you if you don’t exercise. Things like this position disabled people as outside the human experience because it both dehumanizes us by turning us into the monster that will destroy you because you didn’t eat your vegetables or go for that run.

As a result of being artificially positioned as the outsider, it both ignores the unique difficulties disabled people face while trying to access exercise. It also frames disabled lives as ones that are not worth living.

While that may be the belief of some disabled people, it is not the opinion of all of us (not by a long shot). The problem is that nondisabled people don’t see or hear that often enough. Getting that message from Stephen Hawking gives it more weight than it deserves.

Exercise and eating healthy is good for people. Now if only people with as much influence as Stephen Hawking could better understand the big picture of the social causes of why people don’t then maybe we could move away from the obesity shaming and blaming rhetoric which will I assure you, not fix the problems of unhealthy diet and lack of exercise.

I also wish people would stop using disability as a threat or misplaced morality tale to advertise healthy lifestyles. Disabled people deserve to be treated better than that and I for one would actually like to be considered as part of humanity when they actually start coming up with real solutions to the lack of access to healthy food and exercise. An inclusion that is unlikely if I and other disabled people are positioned not as members of the community who face issues of access to healthy lifestyles choices but as the bogeymen representing the perils of noncompliance.

 

 

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Can We Talk About that Paralympics Ad?

British Broadcaster Channel 4 (which has the broadcasting rights for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio) recently released their trailer for the games and it’s getting a lot of positive attention.

Here it is

Here’s a version audio described by Australian comedian Adam Hills

I’ve actually been trying to write this piece for several days and have been having difficulty. Not because I don’t know how I feel about this ad but because I don’t know how to articulate it. I’m still not sure that I do. I have found that when I criticize the media representation of disabled people. I am often accused of criticizing the disabled people in that media.

I want to make it clear that this is not what I’m trying to do. I am trying to talk about the implications of how disabled people and their accomplishments are framed and disseminated for a majority nondisabled audience.

I want to like this ad. It has so much that I love. It has an almost entirely disabled cast and so many of them are doing bad ass things to appropriately themed music. If that was all this was, I would probably be sharing it all over social media to the point of annoying everyone connected to me.

There are two things about this ad that just end up making me cringe. The use of the term Superhumans to refer to Paralympians and the song “Yes, I Can”.

The term Superhumans is not new to the Paralympics. The commercial that Channel 4 used for the 2012 London Paralympics is called “Meet the Superhumans”

You can see it here,

There was no audio described version of this ad. Which I guess speaks to a degree of progress in this year’s advertising and general disability awareness.

So why do I dislike the fact that the Paralympians have been labeled Superhumans? It’s not because I don’t think they are phenomenal athletes. They absolutely are. In a way calling them Superhuman detracts from that fact.

It’s ironic how closely the term Superhuman is to the term Super crip.

Super crip is a term used by disability media critics to describe the phenomenon of celebrating disabled people in either a way that lacks meaningful context or in a way that seeks to effectively erase their disabilities except to add emphasis to the extraordinariness of their accomplishments. It’s not just that they’re amazing athletes. It adds a degree of “Can you believe someone like that could do this?”

The 2012 ad is particularly guilty of this with its juxtaposition of scenes signifying how people became disabled (often violently) with images of them succeeding as athletes.

It does from A to B without looking at any of the context of how people get to B or for that matter who CAN get to B. Because athletic success, particularly for disabled people is not just a matter of having the desire to do it.

Which brings me to the repeated refrain of “Yes, I can” from the 2016 ad, which buys fully into the “to believe is to achieve” stereotype. It is not just a group of musicians, dancers, and athletes showcasing their skills. They really sell the myth.

Consider the scene in the career counselor’s office where the counselor tells a wheelchair user “No, you can’t” which is immediately followed but by that young man playing wheelchair rugby while screaming “YES, I CAN”.

The thing is “No, you can’t” is far more than just the words of an individual who has vastly underestimated your potential. It is a systemic reality. It is far more accurately an expression of “No, you can’t because we won’t let you”. Wheelchair Rugby Clubs do do not appear fully formed just because someone has the desire to play.

Getting to be a Channel 4 “Superhuman” is in many ways as much about luck as it is about skill and hard work. The reality is that access to athletic training for disabled people is limited to those who have physical and financial access to it. If there is no training available in your area or even if there is but you can’t afford it, all the desire and willingness to work in the world is not going to get you to the Paralympics.

In many ways the oversimplification of “yes, I can” actually undermines the extent to an athlete’s success. It ignore the work they put in not only training but also in getting access to that training.

It also erases anyone who doesn’t have access to that training because as I mentioned it’s selling “to believe is to achieve” hard.

The video also delves pretty deeply into inspiration porn territory with it’s images of disabled people doing everyday things. Like looking after children or brushing their teeth. Considering that disabled parents still face the threat of losing their children solely because they are disabled and not from any identified inability to provide care, including Canadian Paralympian Charles Wilton. Wilton did eventually get to keep his son but that doesn’t erase the fact that it was considered acceptable to plan to remove the child before he was even born or before actually assessing it his parents could care for him.

The erasure of systemic barriers in favour of an “overcoming” disability narrative is  misleading. It not only erases the reality of succeeding as a disabled athlete–the need for specialized adapted training and coaches who are willing to work to make those changes–but it also erases the people who don’t have access to those things and completely ignores the reasons why.

It is a disservice to the real work put in by Paralympians whose work and not just successes deserve to be celebrated.

It also promotes social complacency by putting all of the onus for success on disabled people and letting nondisabled people of the hook for the perpetuation of an inaccessible world that actively limits rather than supports our success.

I want to see more bad ass disabled people doing bad ass things but I want those stories to contain context which holds society accountable for why there aren’t more bad ass disabled people being allowed to do bad ass things.

I Bought a Pair of Nike’s Shoes for Disabled People, They’re Not Really that Accessible: A Review

When Nike released their heavily marketed shoes for disabled people in July of 2015, I was excited. All of the media (and there was a lot of media) proclaimed these shoes as being for disabled people. The thing was they really weren’t. At the time of their original release they were only available in men’s sizes 7 & up. This left out many women whose feet were to small (mine included). I wrote a post about it at the time, you can read it here. The shoes also didn’t come in children’s sizes. This meant that by and large the shoes were not for disabled people, they were for disabled men.

More recently Nike has expanded the line from the men’s basketball shoe to include men and women’s running shoes and children’s shoes. Selection unfortunately varies by country. In Canada where I am you can only buy medium width women’s running shoes while in the USA they also come in wide.

In Canada the selection of children’s shoes only includes basketball shoes while American children can also select running shoes.

The Canadian Nike website looks like this

Nike Flyease selection Canada

Image description: A screenshot of the Nike online store for Canada showing the selection of shoes with Flyease technology. There are five pairs of shoes. Link to website here.

The American website looks like this

American Flyease selection

Image description: A screen shot of the American Nike online store showing the selection of shoes with Flyease technology. There are ten pairs of shoes. Link to website here.

There are even some countries where the shoes aren’t available at all like Australia.

I’ve been needing a new pair of gym shoes and decided to give the Nike’s a try now that they’re available in my size. They are only available online so I had to order them. They arrived last Friday and I’ve been wearing them for the last few days to get a sense of them.

First, I’m going to discuss why accessible shoes are so important to me.

Given the fact that I only have the full use of my right hand and only very little dexterity in my left, tying shoes is a time consuming chore. It’s also a skill I didn’t develop until well after my peers. I was around ten years old when I was finally able to tie my shoes well consistently but it still takes me at leat three times as long as nondisabled people.

I spent most of my early childhood wearing shoes done up with velcro. Unfortunately, this was the nineties, long before vecro actually started being used in fashionable shoes as a result, they were generally only available in sizes for toddlers, small children and adults (designed for the elderly. There were definitely a few years when I had outgrown the available children’s options but did not fit into adult shoes.

Despite what confused people on the internet seem to think, not everyone is falling over themselves to help disabled people when we genuinely need it (see the comments where people just can’t understand why I refuse to agree that disabled people should have to ask for prepared produce in this post on peeled oranges). So I had to graduate to laces but couldn’t actually deal with them. My mother didn’t want to be constantly tying my shoes for me, so she tied them loosely so that I could slip them on and off without untying them (this was not ideal as they were not a secure fit).

I distinctly remember one summer, going to a family event for my dad’s work, where one of his coworkers thought it would be hilarious to untie my shoes, admittedly, I’m sure he assumed I could retie them but I couldn’t ans my mum, dad and siblings weren’t close by so I just started to cry because I couldn’t really go anywhere until someone retied them for me.

As a kid I would have loved shoes that were accessible and designed to be fashionable. They wouldn’t have so obviously set me apart by having to wear shoes done up with velcro long after all of my peers had graduated to laces.

But back to the Nikes. Here’s what they look like

2016-05-02 21.19.28

Image description: Front view of Nike’s Zoom Pegasus 32 Flyease running shoes. They are grey with magenta accents.

From the front, they appear like an average running shoe. The only hint that they might me different is that the laces are thin and have no visible way of adjusting them. This is because the laces are actually internally threaded through the shoes and are connected to the back zipper seen here

2016-05-02 21.19.57

Image description: rear view of the Nike Zoom Pegasus 32 shoes. The zipper closure id visible along the heel of the shoe while the strap is attached on the inner side of the shoe, it is attached to the lace string which is visible on either side of the zipper.

The shoes are unzipped to allow the foot to enter and exit from the heel.

2016-05-03 20.58.25

Image description: Back view of an unzipped Nike Zoom Pegasus 32

2016-05-03 20.58.37

Image description: Side view of an unzipped Nike Zoom Pegasus 32. The heel is visibly separated from the shoe to allow top and rear access.

The wearer can then slide their foot into the shoe, you have to have your foot shoved as far forward as possible and then the zipper can be pulled across and the zipper strap secured with velcro.

When I bought these shoes, my intention was to particularly look at how well these shoes work with various orthotic devices. I have an Ankle Foot Orthosis (AFO), a Bioness L300 and a basic custom insole to compensate for leg length discrepancy. I was going to check how well these shoes worked with each device and report back with pictures. The problem is that these shoes don’t accommodate any of them.

I first tried the shoes with just my lift

2016-05-02 20.42.25

Image description: a black custom made orthotic lift designed to compensate for leg length discrepancy.

After I had inserted the insole, I could barely get the shoe zipped up and the fit was so tight it hurt. I had to remove it. I suspect the shoes might work with a heel lift wedge, which is less invasive but I don’t have one at the moment and will have to find a supplier in Toronto.

I didn’t even bother trying the AFO because it takes up way more space in the shoe and I suspected trying might damage the zipper.

The heel sensor for A Bioness L300 isn’t as invasive as my lift (but I need to use the two things together). Even without the lift, the Bioness (you can read my thoughts on that product here) still isn’t compatible with these Nikes because the heel sensor has to be clipped to the inner side of the shoe.

2016-05-02 20.48.44

Image description: A blue shoe with the Bioness L300 sensor clipped in proper position over the ankle on the inner side of the shoe.

As you will recall, the Nikes zip to the inside and the zipper would get in the way of where the sensor needs to be clipped. Not only does the clip require significan dexterity in at least one hand to operate, it also include internal spikes to hold it firmly in place. It is difficult to remove which detracts from the needed accessibility of the shoe and repeated removals and replacements would likely damage the zipper of the Nikes.

So these shoes are really only useful for people who have no additional orthotic needs. I’m not sure if the wide version of the shoes would better accommodate a lift but i can’t find out as that version of the shoe isn’t available in Canada. The basketball shoe may also provide more space but it isn’t available in my size so I’m not sure.

Now on to the merits of the shoes themselves.

They can indeed be zipped up one handed, but that hand will need some strength and dexterity. The motion isn’t smooth and requires some maneuvering but definitely took me less time than tying laces.

I could however only zip them with my right hand. My left hand could neither negotiate the zipper or the velcro, so be aware of that before ordering. Some hand dexterity and strength is required to properly operate the zipper.

Due to my hemiplegia my left foot is significantly smaller than my right but the shoe still fit comfortably despite my buying the size for my right foot.

That being said, be aware that the tightness of the shoe can’t really be adjusted. As I mentioned above the top laces are attached to the zipper, so if you loosen the shoe, you won’t actually be able to zip it up. You can tighten then a bit but it’s finicky and requires dexterity. I find this to be a major design flaw. The shoes really need to have top laces that can be tightened or loosens independent of the zipper. Doing that might make them more usable with orthotics, though as long as they zip to the inner side, they won’t be compatible with anything like the Bioness.

Other thoughts

While there is an inner covering to protect the foot from the zipper, I highly recommend that people wear socks as the zipper is hard and may irritate your foot.

Conclusions

These shoes are best suited to people who either have the full use of one hand or only minor limited dexterity. They are also best suited to people who don’t use orthotics of any kind.

As with my original thoughts on the Nike accessible shoes back when they were only designed for men, I maintain my conclusion that the claim that these shoes are for disabled people generally is false. They will meet the needs of only a very small portion of the disabled population. I unfortunately can’t really see Nike trying to rectify that any time soon or ever as they are to heavily invested in “Hey we identified a problem for disabled people and we fixed it!” style advertising. They are unlikely to acknowledge that in order to make a more widely accessible shoe, much more work needs to be done.

It is clear that they considered the needs of an individual (see the video in my previous post for background on how the shoes came to be) and didn’t really consider that an individual’s needs are not representative of the scope of people they have now claimed to cater to.

For these shoes to be more accessible they would need to zip to the outside edge (so as to be compatible with a Bioness), they would need to be able to accommodate a variety of orthotics. The shoes also need a mechanism to independently manage the tightness of the shoes that isn’t attached to the zipper. This last one might actually rectify the orthotic situation, at least for insole type orthotics, though likely not an AFO.

Ultimately, I do think these shoes will be good for some people and I will be able to use them as gym shoes because, running and cycling don’t aggravate  issues caused by my leg length difference the way walking does but I won’t be able to use them for everyday use (unless I can get my hands on a heel wedge and it works, I’ll report back if I do).

The biggest issue isn’t even how limited the consumer base is with these shoes. They will definitely help some people. I would have loved them as a kid, back before I became an adult and my body was more forgiving of not wearing my corrective orthotics. Nothing is universally accessible and it’s unreasonable to expect a single thing to cater to all disability needs. The biggest issue is that in all the media, the shoe is presented as though it does fix all those problems. It’s the shoe for people with disabilities. Not the shoe for people with very specific needs because admitting that means that Nike admits to leaving people out.

The thing is we need to acknowledge that these shoes while a step in the right direction DO still leave people out and those people deserve to have their needs catered to. The first step in that direction is for people to express their needs and to have manufacturers acknowledge them and commit to working toward fixing them. The “Hey look we fixed it” mentality and overly inclusive language put out by Nike and happily parroted by the mainstream media are a major barrier in moving forward with further progress and it’s a barrier that needs to be knocked down.

 

Nike’s Shoe for Disabled People Doesn’t Include Disabled Women

A headline from People proclaims “Nike’s New Sneaker Will Solve a Very Important Problem for People with Disabilities“. Similar headlines can been found from USA Today, Huffington Post, Glamour, and so many more. Another key article title  comes from theshoegame.com it reads “Nike Designs Flyease to Improve the Quality of Life for Disabled Athletes“.

All of these articles are talking about Nike’s new FLYEASE technology which allows a person to put on a shoe by opening the heel and just sliding their foot in and closing the shoe around the heel. The new design removes the need for laces. So for those of us with hand dexterity issues, shoes using this technology are a breakthrough.

I have been seeing the articles about the shoes, Nike FLYEASE Zoom soldier 8 everywhere around the internet for the last few days including on blogs specifically devoted to disability issues.

Most of the press around the new shoes includes references to Nike’s mission statement which includes the line “If you have a body, you’re an athlete”. Which is a great sentiment. Too bad it took Nike this long to include disabled people as a targeted market.

All of the run up marketing for the shoe’s release today has had a focus on all disabled people and includes this video from Nike explaining the inspiration for the shoe and why it’s important to include disabled people.

The video talks about both a Nike employee who had a stroke and a young man with cerebral palsy. Both of whom were instrumental in having Nike design the technology and having them bring it to market. The video is very clear about the wide ranging applications for shoes like this. Designer Tobie Hatfield says “it’s not just about stroke victims. It’s not just about cerebral palsy. It’s about all of it and thus the FLYEASE technology”

The language surrounding the technology and the shoes is so universal that you might believe it when they say disabled athletes or people with disabilities. I did.

I waited for today (the official product launch and googled Nike Zoom Soldier 8. I found them at Footlocker, they seem to be selling well as many sizes are already unavailable (or they just seriously understocked).

The problem, they are only available in the Men’s section. There is no corresponding design for women. So when they were talking about people with disabilities and disabled athletes. They really meant men with disabilities.

I thought that I must be mistaken so I searched for FLYEASE and women and got nothing. I went to shoe websites and searched new Nike arrivals for women and still no accessible shoe for women.

The product news announcement on Nike’s website doesn’t mention a separate launch for a women’s version of the shoes. Just a lot of talk of including disabled people even though women don’t seem to be included.

So if everyone with a body is an athlete. What about disabled women’s bodies? Do we get shoes too? Or was there some mistake and I just haven’t found them yet?

Seriously Nike, let me know.

Update:

I e-mailed Nike about this and their response so far boils down to “we’re looking into it”. If I get anything more concrete I’ll update again.

My Excuse is Not Invalid, My Experiences as a Disabled Person in Athletics

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

Ballet

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.

Soccer

I had no particular interest in soccer so I didn’t try very hard. My suckiness is entirely on me.

Gymnastics

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.

Judo

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.

Adulthood

University athletics

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.

Gym membership

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.

Yoga

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.