Nearly a decade ago I became a member of the disability community, a community that at the time I knew nothing about. I didn’t know the first thing about what living life with a spinal cord injury looked like, although sadly my initial assumption of what my future would look like, looked nothing like the life I have lived.
Instantly I made assumptions of what my future would hold, as I was surrounded by the perception that living with a disability meant that I was now incapable of doing certain things. I sat back as my mind wandered to all the inherent limits that would now be placed on me. I didn’t look to my future as limitless, sadly I saw the wheelchair beside me and I saw road block after road block. Although, nearly a decade later I wish I could go back and ask myself “why?” Why was I so quick to limit myself? Why at such a young age was I so quick to cap my own potential not only for what I could be, but the life that I would live.
We live in a world with nearly a seventh of our population living with a disability. In the United States that number rises to one out of every five people, yet in the disability community our employment rate is bleak. We still have to fight that disability rights are human rights and accessibility within our communities is often an afterthought. As someone who is inherently curious I find myself asking “why?” but as someone who is always looking to find a solution I also find myself looking for the “how?” So, how do we change the way we as a society not only perceive disability, but also how do we change how we integrate disability into a greater role in our society?
I may be totally off base; however, I believe that the way we achieve this is through sport. As a Paralympian, I have watched as sport has impacted my own life, the impact sport has had on my community and the power the Paralympic Movement holds to debunk the perception of disability, flip it upside down and create greater inclusion in our society. Paralympic sport showcases incredible athleticism, it proves that if there is a will, then there is a way and most of all it showcases in the most powerful way possible that individuals living with “disabilities” are in no way “disabled.”
If we can create greater inclusion on the field of play, especially in our youth programs, we will ultimately watch that inclusion transcend into our communities. We will see perception take a shift in our most impressionable population and we will watch as our youth of today move off the field of play and into the classroom, as they grow into young adults and ultimately as they become our leaders of tomorrow. By focusing on greater inclusion in youth sport we will see the tides turn. Inclusion on the field of play will begin to transcend sport and enter our communities, changing perception of what disability looks like in our society and ultimately creating greater social inclusion in our communities, schools and the work force.
Now the question is how? How do we create greater inclusion on the field of play? We make sport accessible to all, no matter their race, gender, zip code, financial means or ability. We do it in two ways. First, we create grassroots programs in our communities that provide not only opportunity to all our youth, but bridge the gap. We hold adaptive sport camps that allow a child with an impairment to bring their friend who possibly doesn’t have an impairment so they can play a game of wheelchair basketball together. We make it known that all children are welcome at a local soccer clinic, regardless of ability and rather the dividing our youth, we adapt our programming. By immersing our youth in a world of inclusion, we are able to change their perception before they even begin to form perceptions.
Then, secondly, in a world that has instant access to content, we flood the market with content that bridges that gap. We utilize the power of media to create content that challenges the perception of disability in our society. We need to create powerful role models for our youth, role models that represent all walks of life, role models that encourage inclusion and show every youth the potential of their future – media has the power to do that.
This isn’t a small feat, it is a fight many have fought for years, but it is my hope that as our next generation grows a future “Mallory” will see a world of possibilities before them, rather than the world of limitations that I saw. It is my hope that we will see the perception of disability in our society change, we will watch as the tides shift and access for all will be the first priority, not the afterthought, we will watch as employment rates not only rise but we will see individuals in the disability community hold executive positions, seats in office and roles in our media. No child, adolescent or adult for that matter should feel limited due to their perceived limitations, we must create a society of inclusion that fosters growth not only for the lucky few but for all.
Mallory Weggemann is Paralympic Gold and Bronze Medalist, motivational speaker and disability advocate. She is currently training for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.