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Why We Should (and Shouldn't) Find the Paralympics Inspirational

As I sit watching the amazing athletes in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio, I’m reminded yet again of how inspirational we people with disabilities can be. Each and every one of these athletes are inspirational, and should be an inspiration to the many young athletes today who seek to one day claim their spot in the Paralympics. It is inspiring to me to see the kids I once played with and helped coach now grown and playing in the biggest game of their lives, the Paralympic gold medal wheelchair basketball game, and winning! I never thought I would be able to watch such awesome cohesion in a team.

I am also aware of another inspirational trait that was apparent throughout all the teams in the Paralympic games — the incredible sportsmanship they displayed. In these often troubled times of conflict throughout the world, it is inspiring to see these players showing encouragement toward their opponents. It is ever-important for us to support one another regardless of what team we play on, because in the end we are all on the same team, trying to improve awareness and support for individuals with disabilities.

All of these are good reasons to be inspired by the athletes in the 2016 Paralympic Games. But unfortunately, they are sometimes seen as inspiring to the able-bodied community for the wrong reasons. In our society, disabilities are seen as a thing to be feared. Individuals with disabilities are often viewed as lesser beings, incapable of accomplishing the same level of success as an able-bodied individual. Because of this, the Paralympics is less televised than the Olympic Games, and fewer people attend. The athletes do not receive the same kind of recognition from society as their able-bodied counterparts, and their accomplishments are often times seen as “amazing… for someone with a disability.” They are inspired not by the athleticism of these fine individuals, or their hard work and dedication to their sports, but by the fact that they are disabled and yet still manage to play a game that nobody would ever think they could do, and isn’t that just nice… (sarcasm sign here.) In many cases, individuals in our society are viewed as “inspiring” for performing menial tasks just because they have a disability.

The able-bodied world needs to understand that people with disabilities are not inspiring just for doing everyday activities. When I go to the grocery store in my wheelchair to get more sugar, I am not inspiring; I am just shopping like everyone else. When a child with an amputated leg walks on a prosthetic, he is not inspiring; he is just walking like everyone else. When a woman who is blind goes to the library to check out a book in Braille, she is not inspiring; she is just getting a book to read like everyone else. When a young man with cerebral palsy graduates from college, he is not more inspiring than the rest of his accomplished classmates.

Yes, people with disabilities can be inspiring. Steven Hawkins is a genius, and has contributed so much to science and our society. He is inspiring. Matt Scott, an American Paralympic wheelchair basketball player who has two Parapan gold medals, was nominated for the Best Male Athlete with a Disability ESPY Award, starred in a Nike commercial, and just helped his team win gold in the 2016 Paralympics at Rio, is inspiring. Christine Ha was awarded Master Chef in the third season of the hit television show, “Master Chef,” by Chef Gordon Ramsey for being an amazing cook, and she just happens to be blind. She is inspiring. These people are not inspiring because of their disability, they are inspiring because of the unique skills they have developed through hard work, learning, training, and dedication. They just all happen to have disabilities. Let’s stop focusing on the disability and start focusing on the accomplishments these amazing individuals have achieved.

Congratulations to all of the athletes in the Paralympic Games at Rio in 2016. It takes a true athlete to accomplish what you have accomplished, and win or lose, you have done your country proud. You are the best of the best. My deepest condolences to the family, friends and teammates of Iranian cyclist Bahman Golbarnezhad. Our thoughts and prayers go out to you.

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