What Defines What?

I have been following the Paralympics in Sochi and it got me to thinking about my first competition.  I was 17 at the time and competed in the first Canadian National Wheelchair Sports Game held in Montreal in 1967.  It coincided with the Montreal Expo which was one big party.  The first games were more social than athletics but they brought a new face to the world of disability.  It took wheelchair sports from the rehab venue of Stoke Mandeville into mainstream society.  As a 17 year old it was a way to say “See me world, I am a person”.  I wasn’t refined enough at that point to recognize the difference between defining myself and defining my disability.

It took me a long time to separate myself from my polio.  I was probably well into my twenties before I was even conscious of what was defining what.  The epiphany that I defined my disability rather than the other way around hadn’t dawned on me yet.  But when it did it came crashing down on me like a 707 falling out of the sky.  When the realization that ones disability is as much a component of ones self as their eye colouring it can be ego shattering.  You begin to realize that your driving force up to that point had been based on proving yourself to the world as a person and not a diagnosis.  When in reality it was me that had to move beyond being a diagnosis and being a living, breathing entity.

Watching the Paralympics really brought this home to me this year.  After watching the Olympics, hearing all of the wonderful adjectives used to describe the athletes and then switching over to the Paralympics another light went on.  The Olympic athletes were accomplished, had refined their skills, had invested their efforts to become the best in the world at what they did.  They were graceful, skilled, strong and competitive.  None of which I disagree with.  To reach that level of mastery is indeed something to be proud of.

Watching the Paralympics I hear terms like “overcome adversity”, “tackling their personal challenges head on” and (the one I personally detest the most) “being inspirational”.  These people are athletes first who happen to compete in the Paralympics, the only venue available to them.  Is there a reason they can’t be run in conjunction with the Olympics?  Do they really need to bring up the rear two weeks after the Olympics are over?  What kind of message does that send?  What is defining what in this scenario?

Paralympians, like Olympians, are driven by their sport.  They are competing and accomplishing because they have discovered their talent.  They are not driven to compete because they are a spinal cord injury, amputee or blind.  They are athletes, plain and simple!  They have reached the pinnacle of their sport and they excel.  They have invested the same time and effort as their counterparts in the Olympics, not because of a disability but because of a very strong ability.

I competed because I was disabled and this gave me an opportunity to be involved in something that seemed normal at the time.  It provided a venue where I could be involved in sports.  This was rehab sport and I realized that.  There is still rehab sport and there will always be a need for it.  It’s a starting point and should be viewed that way.  I never had the drive or the hardcore ability (in sports) to reach the level we see at the Paralympics.  One cannot compare high school basketball to the NBA level but a few may go further than the high school gym.  They have the opportunity because of what they have inside themselves.

I don’t believe for a minute that the likes of Brian McKeever won the medals he did because he is visually impaired.  He won them because he is one hell of a cross country skier.  And yet the news talks about how wonderful this man is for “overcoming” his visual challenges.  I hear that stuff and I do get a little angry.  People don’t seem to understand the power of words.  It wasn’t his visual challenge he overcame, it was peoples attitude that he overcame.  Societal attitudes that try to define him and me based on a disability rather than an ability.

I define who I am, not my disability and not societal thinking.  I am a person first and as many of you know I can be a bit of a prick when called for.  Which brings me back to that word “inspirational”.  If I had a nickel for every time that word showed up with my name I would be rich.  The truth is I don’t want to be inspirational.  Being inspirational should be reserved for the likes of the Brian McKeever’s, the Terry Foxes or the Rick Hansen’s of the world.  They are inspirational and they are prepared to carry that mantle.  I just want to be me and somedays I’m not really sure who “me” is due to so many other interpretations of what I am suppose to be.

Just one mans opinion!



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