Equality; It’s Empowering by Leona Emberson

This summer I competed in my first season of triathlon. I was registered for my races. I picked up my race kit including my bibs, bike stickers and the appropriate swim cap for my category. Before the race I racked my bike and set up my transition area. After last minute pep talks, I headed to the start line. I swam, I biked, I ran, I finished the race. I received my finisher’s medal. I will even be receiving recognition for the top finisher for the season in my category.

Does this sound “normal” to you? If it does, then you are most likely not a Para Athlete. My past race experience involves a lot more bumps. Upon registration, I am frequently faced with inaccessible websites. Once I am registered, I send an e-mail to the race director explaining that I have partial vision and run with a guide. I explain that my guide is a necessary race accommodation, and therefore no registration fees should apply to her. There are then e-mails which go back and forth about liability and waivers, and race bibs. Usually this accommodation is agreed to, but sometimes it takes a lot of work. Upon race kit pick up, there is often a glitch such as a missing waiver, or bib. Once these pre-race stresses are dealt with I am free to race. I am free to race against non-para athletes. I finish my race and receive my finisher medal. I will not rank in my age group category, no matter how hard I train as I am not competing on equal grounds.

The “normal” race experiences of this summer have empowered me. I feel a weight being lifted off of me as I recognize that equality can exist. If I can compete alongside non-para athletes in a para category, I can compete equally. If this can happen in sport, it can happen in life.

There is still a lot of work ahead to make equality normal. This spring I participated in a race which should have been the start to an empowering and equal race season. The race organizers proclaimed that they were going to have a para category specifically for blind and vision impaired athletes. Press releases were sent out, and athlete profiles were written. Newspaper and radio interviews were conducted and the largest pool of blind and vision impaired runners to ever race in Canada was assembled. With guides at our sides, we raced with high spirits. After the race we celebrated our victory of equality, but race results were suspiciously absent. The following week, after follow-up with race organizers, we were informed that there would be no results for the para category. Our results would be posted in our age groups. This was not what we had been told. It was disheartening.

What made the difference between the races which fully embraced the para category, and the one which left it suspiciously absent? Maybe it was the focus of the race organizers and their understanding of what equality and inclusion mean? Maybe it was the tenacity of the individuals who were fighting to have the category included? I can’t say for sure.

In the case of the inclusive and equal races, I observed a change within myself. I have always been an advocate, but had difficulty seeing past the next battle and onto the bigger picture. It was empowering to think that the little fights for accommodation and acceptance could result in bigger things. In contrast, after the race which ended up not being inclusive, I felt disheartened. I knew I would keep fighting, but felt like it would be a never-ending battle.

I choose to follow through with the empowerment of the summer races, to actively participate in fashioning a world in which I am an equal. Equality is a powerful thing. It empowers, strengthens, and motivates. It brings with it pride and joy. It has given me hope for a future where para athletes can focus on being athletes, and receive all that we deserve! There is still a long way to go, but I know it is possible.

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