As someone who enjoys sports and has paid closer attention to adaptive sports and disabled athletes, something profound stood out: the over-whiteness of everything. With the Paralympic Games in its fifth day, I wanted to explore how the lack of diversity played a critical role as to who gets the opportunity to make the Team USA roster.
I spoke with Sam de Leve, a disabled athlete from California. They are a swimmer and wheelchair racer (under the T54 classification). Sam (who has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome) is a stark advocate who shares their passion for sports, demands more intersectionality within our community, and speaks out against inspiration porn. Though Sam is not a person of colour, they are someone who has a very distinguished understanding of their own white privilege, how racial diversity impacts adaptive sports, and how it affects which athletes makes it to the level of a Paralympian.
(Special note: For this piece, I did reach out to disabled athletes of colour to gain their perspective. However, I was unable to obtain quotes/insight from such persons in order to make the deadline for this article. I am incredibly interested in getting these voices for future articles on disability, sports, and diversity, so if you or someone you know would be interested in being interviewed, please contact me at Vilissa@rampyourvoice.com.)
This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
Vilissa Thompson: How did you get started in adaptive sports?
Sam de Leve: When I first got into a wheelchair, it was quite heavy for me. I was building up muscle by bopping around town for the first time after being so limited in mobility, but was aware of how vulnerable my unstable shoulders were, so I took up swimming to build muscle in a safe environment. Within my first month of swim training, I hit national qualifying times, and that motivated me to pursue sports. I have competed in swimming, including two gold medals and one bronze at the 2013 World Maccabiah Games (often called the Jewish Olympics), played some wheelchair rugby, and am currently in wheelchair racing and fitness.
VT: What makes wheelchair racing different from other track and field disciplines?
SdL: The financial cost gives it a higher barrier to entry than many track and field sports, as well as the specialised technique that limits crossover training. It’s also not unusual for wheelchair racers to be competitive at a wide range of distances due to the training required; many athletes will race anything from sprint and middle-sprint up to the marathon.
VT: What are the costs of becoming a wheelchair racer?
SdL: The baseline cost of a racing chair in the US is about $2,900 with shipping costs. For a kneeling racing chair with a solid seat-pan (most commonly used by competitive racers), it’s closer to $3,300-3,600, depending on whether you have a body type that requires higher cost options. Professional racers typically opt for solid rear wheels, which costs another $2,000. Overall, an entry-level racing chair can be expected to cost about $3,000 and an elite chair is closer to $6,000.
There are also recurring costs, primarily wheel and tyre maintenance. If you don’t have solid rear wheels, pushing on pushrims directly attached to spokes (unlike street chairs, where pushrims are attached to the wheel rim) rapidly forces the spokes out of tune, meaning that athletes need assistance re-tuning and/or have to gain expertise in tuning spokes. Tubes pop and tires blow if you’re on the road often, and it’s common for wheelchair racers to do both road and track racing.
VT: What types of training and additional costs are associated?
SdL: Wheelchair racing is a strength-endurance sport. The action of pushing the wheelchair is done against resistance, so although there’s the same anaerobic-in-sprint, aerobic-in-distance element as running, strength matters significantly more at all distances.
Training for wheelchair racing looks a lot like training for other strength-endurance sports performed against moderate resistance, like swimming. There is a significant amount of time spent on your race chair, analogous to the hours clocked in the pool, but weight training represents an important secondary element of training.
One needs to have knowledgeable coaches for both aspects of the sport’s training. Elite-level disability coaching is a limited resource, due in part to the comparative youth of the movement, and the longevity of Paralympic careers. It’s not unusual to see racers in their late forties racing and even medalling at the Games. These athletes, then, are not making the retirement transition to coaching.
Also, one needs a strength trainer, ideally one who not only knows how to work with athletes with your specific disability, but who also understands how to conduct sport-specific strength training for wheelchair racing. Until one makes the national team, there is no USOC [United States Olympic Committee] support for training expenses, and the CAF [Challenged Athlete Foundation] is one of the few sources of training grants.
The final major cost associated with wheelchair racing is travel. Because the US is a large country and the total number of wheelchair racers is so small, long-distance travel is the only means of competition. Even the lowest-level wheelchair track meets require interstate travel. It’s also worth noting that not all competition opportunities in wheelchair racing are sanctioned track and field meets.
VT: As an athlete, what have you noticed about the diversity of disabled athletes in sports in general, and the Paralympics specifically?
SdL: I live in California, where no single ethnic or racial group forms a majority of the population, so a truly representative athlete population should be majority non-white. While that level of representation does seem to hold on some wheelchair basketball teams I’ve seen, it’s not the case in any other disability sport I’ve encountered at the regional level.
I’ve also noticed a clear class component in disability sport: it’s not only white, but white and middle to upper-middle class. Because of the barriers accessing disability sport, families with social capital are in a significantly better position to navigate those barriers, whether in terms of pushing schools to create access for young disabled athletes (Tatyana McFadden’s family famously had to sue to allow her to race alongside other runners), or in navigating the Byzantine grant system that enables access to equipment.
Finally, there is significant male-domination of many disability sports. Though swimming has fairly even representation, most of the other popular disability sports I’ve seen have a significant male skew, which is reflected in the grants issued by the CAF, 70% of which go to men. It’s possible that a higher percentage of CAF applicants are male, though data is not available on the demographics of the applicant pool.
VT: Does the Paralympics have an over-whiteness problem? If so, what could be contributing to this?
SdL: In a word, yes. I cannot extricate this issue from funding, because of the long history of racism and white supremacy, both nationally and globally. Centuries of white wealth extraction from PoC set up white disabled athletes to prosper in sports where equipment costs create a high barrier to entry.
This funding deficit also creates a vicious cycle where countries that cannot afford to produce elite athletes then lack the institutional knowledge to train the next generation. People in rich, predominantly white countries not only have access to the equipment required to participate, but a deep bench of coaches that allow athletes from those countries to become more technically proficient.
At the national [US] level, increasing racial representation does not seem to be a priority for the stakeholders with the funding to do something about it. It does not escape my notice that the vast majority of these stakeholders are white. Across almost all Paralympic sports, the designated Elite Performance Director is white. That invites a system that does not feel any urgency about developing PoC disabled athletes, or focus on the concerns specific to development in a way that might improve PoC inclusion.
Another institutional player in the US is the VA [Veterans Affairs]. Where disabled non-vets rely on personal wealth or CAF grants to fund sports-specific equipment, the VA offers their own funding. Due to the disproportionate rates of military service among many PoC and the increasing interest in providing disability sport opportunities to disabled veterans, the VA would potentially act as a source of disabled athletes of colour.
However, PoC vets don’t seem to make up a large proportion of the vets on Team USA, and are certainly not highlighted in media coverage about vets on Team USA, with white athletes like Brad Snyder and Melissa Stockwell getting the majority of coverage.
VT: What are some ways the over-whiteness could be combated?
SdL: Improving global representation is a critical element of ensuring diversity at the Paralympics, and that needs to be accomplished through funding. Although the IPC [International Paralympic Committee] has made some attempts at improving access to equipment in the Global South, it needs to be paired with intensive, long-term training for coaches so that those athletes can benefit from the results utilised in countries with more established programs.
This also requires a Paralympic movement with greater overall access to capital. The IOC [International Olympic Committee] has a revenue stream two orders of magnitude larger than its Paralympic counterpart, which has never cleared $20 million in annual revenue. It’s incredibly difficult to develop capital-intensive sports without access to capital.
Nationally, we must find some source of investment so our sports infrastructure does not continue to build at this frustratingly slow pace. Greater institutional investment will minimise the personal investment required by individual families, a burden that disproportionately impacts PoC.
We should also consider encouraging universities to hire adaptive sports coaches, including recently retired athletes. As more universities develop adaptive sports programs, disabled student-athletes will be freer to choose their school based on academic interests as well as the ability to continue participating in their sport of choice. Ultimately, as more disabled college athletes graduate, school districts can hire them as coaches, further spreading institutional coaching knowledge across the country and helping to bring access to disability sport to more PoC communities, rather than remaining clustered in a handful of small (often rather white) cities.
VT: Who are some influential disabled PoC athletes should we know about?
SdL: My list is going to be a bit US-centric, but I do want to emphasise the dominance of disabled PoC athletes globally. China, for instance, has a robust training program for Paralympians and their athletes can be found in the finals and medal podiums of sports from wheelchair racing to powerlifting.
One of the international athletes I want to note is Zahra Nemati, the Iranian archer and flag-bearer who competed at London 2012, and just finished her run at the Rio Olympics, making her the only PoC athlete I know to compete in both the Olympics and Paralympics.
Ones to watch from Team USA include:
Chuck Aoki, one of the major ball-handlers for Team USA in wheelchair rugby and a mainstay of the national team.
Matt Scott, known as the Steph Curry of wheelchair basketball.
Dartanyon Crockett, a judo practitioner and all-round athlete with state level records as a powerlifter and a wrestling champion.
April Holmes, a 43-year-old multiple-medalist sprinter who also competed in Athens, Beijing, and London. She’s a particular powerhouse in the T44 100 metres.
Steven Toyoji, a wheelchair racer with particular success in distance races. As a California-based athlete in my regional conference, he is also one of the fastest and most agile ball-handlers I’ve ever seen in wheelchair-rugby.
So, are adaptive sports and the Paralympics too white? Undeniably yes, but hopefully this piece will urge all of us to grasp how the over-whiteness in adaptive sports is counterproductive to ensuring that every disabled person is, and feels, fully represented. As we enjoy the Games, we must do more to ensure that individuals who desire to learn an adaptive sport, whether for fitness or fun, or have a passion to compete nationally or internationally, are given the capabilities to do so without experiencing access and cost limitations.
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Vilissa Thompson is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) from Winnsboro, South Carolina. Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization focused on promoting self-advocacy and strengthening empowerment among people with disabilities. Being a Disability Rights Consultant, Writer, & Advocate affords Vilissa the opportunity to become a prominent leader and expert in addressing and educating the public and political figures about the plight of people with disabilities, especially women of color with disabilities. Being a disabled woman of color herself, sharing her life experiences, and tales from the women she has encountered during her advocacy work, has empowered her immensely because it validated the struggles and successes she endured in her young life. Twitter: @VilissaThompson
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