A Reflection on the Transforming Power of the Paralympics for Athletes and Others with Disabilities

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Paralympic athlete Michelle Errichiello at the AIS Track and Field
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The Paralympic Games offer an extraordinary opportunity for us to watch atheletes with disabilities use their bodies and athletic equipment in incredible ways to overcome amazing challenges. As spectators, there are the carbon-fiber prosthetics to marvel over, and the rugby players who use their wheelchairs like hotshot speedcarts.  

In normal day to day life, the physical details of the athletes might put some people off, but not at the Paralympics. Host John Hockenberry considers the transforming power of the event for athletes and others with disabilities.


Below is the transcript of John's audio essay:

What is it about the Paralympics. The physical details of these athletes that might put you off if you encountered someone with a missing arm in the bar, someone in a wheelchair on the subway, a blind person on the sidewalk. Those exact same elements that might feel awkward everywhere else are transformed in the Paralympics. Why? Why does a weird little stump you see in a restaurant haunt you but when you see it in an Olympic pool chasing a world record it makes you cheer?

You might ask to push someone in a wheelchair on the street but encounter a team of Murderball wheelchair rugby players and you know immediately that if you tried to push them you might get buried if not put in a bodycast. You are more likely to see the rugby folks, the swimmers, the archers, the blind goalballers and ask hey can I get one of those cool t-shirts?

And that of course is a completely natural reaction: the why is interesting. When you suddenly see the body’s collaboration with its environment, the wheelchair as a hotshot speedcart, a prosthesis as a robot cyborg arm, a stump as an aerodynamic advantage in the water, suddenly it trumps all of the other more pitiable images. How did that happen, poor guy, I wonder what that girl would have been like with both her legs.

The tragedy gets trumped by this athletic paralympic sense of intent.

When you see the athletes using their bodies and equipment — not being used by it — it changes everything.

When someone is driving in a car they are just another schlub stuck in traffic on the interstate, put them in a Porsche with the top down and they are “racers.”

I’m telling you I live this business. When I first started getting my own titanium wheelchairs with real light weight bike components, chairs that looked like something you would want to cruise around in rather than be pushed through a hospital in, people would say to me:

“Is that a racing chair?” It was just a chair, an actual racing chair would have 3 wheels and would barely even look like a chair. You’ve probably seen some of them at the Paralympics, look nothing like my chair.

But the act of having a chair tricked out in some way, to be about graceful or superfast or superbrutal rugby blocktackling movement, began to suggest that the user of the chair may have moved far beyond the tragedy, beyond the simple awkward circumstances.

Of course all people with disabilities move beyond those circumstances on their own, but it's seeing that clearly that handicaps (may I say it) everyone else.

Let me tell you a story. For years I would roll up a hill and someone would ask… hey need a push… if I rolled down the same hill someone else would say… yer gunna get a speeding ticket…. Lots of staring and alarm in those days… then one day my then 6 year old daughters saw these cool front caster wheels in a catalog that lit up when you spun them. I thought they were kind of silly until my daughters insisted and so I tried them.

The lights transformed everything… a life changing experience. Suddenly I roll by and people say awesome lights… cool chair can I have a ride? People smile. There is something about the fact that those lights are something I did, to enhance the experience of rolling. Rolling which was graceful, beautiful, an alternative to walking not some shameful and inadequate substitute.

The sparkly wheels give a chair intent. Make me the agent of this device not the victim of it, in the same way these paralympians are driving their bodies not being driven by their circumstance.

So next time you see someone outside of the Paralympics venues, remember they may not be competing for a medal for “getting on the bus” or “shopping at the Target” gold silver or bronze. People with disabilities are participating in all the events of life these days.

That’s a win: the circumstances of their disabilities are way back there at the finish line.