Equal not Extraordinary

Jul 23, 2015
Tagged with: Equal not Extraordinary


In 2008, I achieved my greatest athletic goal. I became a Paralympian. Shortly after I joined Team USA, I like most elite athletes, attended a media training session. I nervously sat in a beige hotel conference room, staring at the abstractly-designed carpet beneath my feet. 20 Paralympians surrounded me, representing almost every Paralympic sport. Gold medalists, world-record holders, the poster-children of the Games – we breathed the same air. Suddenly, the leader of the session walked in and began to speak.

“Everyone has a story,” she said. “And today you are going to learn how to cultivate and tell your story.”

Like any elite athlete, my first reaction was of pure confidence.

“I can do this,” I thought. “Piece of cake.”

At the end of the session, we were given a few minutes to take what we had learned, organize our thoughts, and present our story to the athletes in the room. One by one, we shared our stories. The first athlete spoke about living in a Russian orphanage before being adopted by an American family; another spoke about enduring countless, painful operations; and some detailed horrific accidents. As I sat and listened my cheeks turned red, and an army of butterflies began to swarm in the pit of my stomach. The more I listened, the more I felt ashamed.

“My story,” I thought, “is totally lame.”

I did not have any gory details regarding my injury. Heck, I could barely remember what happened. I could not even recall the fateful day when the doctors told me that I would never walk again.

“What did I have to overcome?” I thought.

My first memories were of learning how to swim and buzzing around my yard in my hand-operated Power Wheels. Instead of feeling grateful for my lack of medical procedures, supportive family and inclusive athletic opportunities, I felt like a Paralympic failure.

Now, before I create too much controversy, let me say that there was absolutely nothing wrong with these athletes sharing their stories of challenges and triumphs. Those were their stories. And in each story they beautifully promoted sport as the source of their triumph. What aggravated me was that I felt an expectation to share the same type of story.

This month, specifically July 26, we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In honor of this celebration, I began to think not only how access to services and facilities for people with a disability has improved since 1990, but how society’s view and expectation of people with a disability has changed.

Before the ADA, basic human rights were limited for individuals with a disability. Many people with a disability lived in institutions or were not able to fully participate in society due to inaccessibility. Disability for the most part was hidden from the public eye; therefore society’s expectation of people with a disability was low and the perception of disability was of despair.

Today, approximately 19% of Americans have a disability. To put that into perspective, the number of Americans living with a disability is larger than the number of African Americans. Over the past 25 years the ADA has done a great deal to improve the lives of individuals with a disability. People have better access to business, education, public transportation, employment and physical activity.

While opportunities for people with a disability have grown, the shift in Americans’ perception of people with a disability has missed the mark. The ADA was not meant to turn people with a disability into heroes. It was not intended to treat us as special members of society. The ADA was established to create equality. And as Americans tend to do, we progressed from one extreme to another. I transitioned from a poor homebound underachiever to an inspirational poster.

I just want to be equal.

In 25 years, another crop of elite athletes will sit through a media training session in a similar conference room in a similar hotel. Some will share stories of tragedy because tragedy is a part of life. Some will share stories of overcoming adversity because sport is one of the greatest catalysts for empowerment. But my hope is that no one will feel less because they have endured less. No one will be touted as greater because they have endured more. I am confident, thanks to the ADA and the progress we continue to make, an athlete with a disability will speak proudly about her access to inclusive sport in school and adapted sport in her community. Her biggest challenge will be completing the day’s workout, and her media training will prepare her to be on the front page of the sports section.

Author: Mary Allison Cook

  • bobl07

    Great piece MA. It will be true inclusion and total acceptance when she is asked how she feels about tonight’s game instead of how did she feel after the accident.