themighty logo

Paralympic Swimmer Withdraws From Tokyo Games After Being Denied Disability Accommodations

This week, deaf-blind Paralympic swimmer and three-time gold medalist Becca Meyers announced that she is withdrawing from the 2021 Tokyo Games because she was denied accommodations for her disability. In a powerful USA Today op-ed, Meyers explains why she had no choice but to drop out of the competition. “If I don’t have someone I can trust, how can I trust that I will be safe?” she asks. Her story shines a bright light on systemic ableism in the Paralympics and the essential role of personal care assistants in the lives of people with disabilities.

Meyers is blind and deaf due to Usher syndrome, a rare genetic disorder, and needs support to navigate her environment. This assistance becomes even more critical when attending a competition in an unfamiliar country where she must find her way between living accommodations, dining, and event venues. After a traumatic experience at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, Meyers asserted her right to disability accommodations and reached an understanding with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) that a personal care assistant — her mother — could accompany her to all international competitions. However, the USOPC is now denying her this right, stating that only “essential operational personnel” are allowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The USOPC is claiming that they are meeting the needs of the Paralympic swim team by providing one PCA on-call for all 33 athletes, but that is absurd. One person cannot possibly have the training, let alone the time, to support 33 people with a diverse range of disabilities. Do they expect the nine blind swimmers to form a conga line behind one PCA to find their way to the cafeteria and pool? And what are the swimmers with paralysis, limb differences, and other disabilities who need assistance supposed to do in the meantime?

The USOPC’s implementation of COVID safety protocols is deeply hypocritical and ableist. PCAs, who are healthcare workers, have been deemed “non-essential” by the USOPC, yet other support workers, including personal golf caddies and horse groomers, are allowed to accompany their athletes. So each golfer gets their own assistant and each horse gets its own caregiver, but a Paralympian who needs help finding food at the cafeteria or putting on their prosthetic limb or taking a shower has to wait in line as 1 of 33. Perhaps if the Paralympians showed up wearing horse head masks, the USOPC would see them as deserving of support.

Horse head mask.
At the 2021 Tokyo Games, horses get an assistant but disabled athletes don’t.

As a disabled woman who relies on PCAs for help with daily tasks, I have found that most able-bodied people do not understand what this type of care actually involves and why it is so essential. If they think about personal care assistants at all, they imagine a home health aide in scrubs visiting an elderly person to assist with cooking and laundry. They see it as a low-skill job just about anybody can do, but that is not the case at all — especially when it comes to active people with disabilities who have complex needs. Personal care assistants help disabled people with whatever we need to not just survive, but thrive, including dressing, bathing, eating, driving, communicating, going to work or school, managing medical equipment, navigating the world, and so much more. Our lives often depend on their support.

Personal care assistants are just that — personal. Even if a PCA has prior training, they still need specific training on how to assist each individual. You can’t designate a stranger to do complex tasks for someone and expect things to go smoothly. Even individuals with the same disability need to be supported in different ways, and learning to communicate and work as a team takes time. Many people, including Meyers, rely on family members who understand their needs to provide PCA services. Many disabled people have experienced abuse and neglect at the hands of PCAs and are extremely careful about who they hire or allow to help them. Training a new PCA can be stressful and time-consuming, and it’s certainly not feasible to do while participating in an elite international sports event. And going without proper care could be life-threatening, even to physically fit disabled athletes.

Paralympic athletes who have rightfully earned their place at the 2021 Tokyo Games are being expected to maintain the physical and mental focus required to compete for the highest honors in their sport while being denied essential health care. This is completely unacceptable. As Meyers says in a Washington Post interview, “We’ve broken barriers in society, defying all odds. And yet this is how we’re treated? Like a burden on the team?” By refusing to provide Meyers and her fellow Paralympians with the support they need, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee has demonstrated that it does not value its disabled athletes. The Paralympics should be a source of national pride, but the committee’s behavior is shameful. Our country and its disabled athletes deserve better.

Image via Instagram.