Wait… Even the Paralympics Are Ableist Now?

BY DAYNA LATHAM

In July 2021, US Paralympic swimmer Becca Meyers pulled out of competing, after her mother and Personal Care Assistant (PCA) was denied access due to Covid regulations. The Olympic Committee is standing firm in their decision, and the ableism - as surprising as it was coming from the Paralympics officials - felt all too familiar.

At the same Paralympics, athlete groups aged thirty and over were allocated a mere eleven assistants. As the only deafblind athlete on the team, Meyers raised concerns in a USA Today op-ed about this arrangement. Not only did she believe there were too few people allocated to the team, but none of them were qualified specifically in deafblind care.

Her concerns are justified. While the team has experience working with people with similar diagnoses, none are officially qualified in the specific care that Meyers requires and receives from her mom, who is officially qualified - and whom she trusts.

It’s hard to believe that anyone would quit an event they’ve spent five years training for without great reluctance. The trust between a disabled person and a long term caregiver is inimitable, and if they’re barred from attending, properly trained replacements are crucial.

When I found out about Meyers’ withdrawal from the Paralympics, I reached out to Deafblind UK, who provide care, advice, and opportunities for deafblind people. I wanted to learn more about deafblind care specifically. CEO Steve Conway told me the organisation was deeply saddened to hear about Becca Meyers.

“Unfortunately, there still remains a lack of understanding about deafblindness being different to deafness and blindness. It is a unique condition which requires unique support, and Becca was not offered this,” he explained.

Conway also told me that deafblindness affects everyone differently and that everyone needs support services to suit them - which only supports Meyers’ claim that a trusted PCA is essential for her to compete.

“Essentially, having no communications guide means having no voice - which would not be acceptable in any other circumstance,” Conway said. As he concluded, it is pleasing that Becca Meyers put her needs first, but she shouldn’t have to.

Unfortunately, there is no way to know how many other athletes this decision has affected. The arrangements each Paralympian can make vary, depending on which country they’re representing, amongst other factors.

The backlash to Meyers’ decision was inevitable, but some even came from within the tent - fellow Paralympian Roy Perkins took to Facebook, denouncing her plight as ‘nonsense’, implying she’s a diva seeking special treatment, and exaggerating her care needs.

Both the official decision and the hurling of this trope beg the question: Why are access needs so frequently gaslit and gate kept? Especially when it comes to women with disabilities?

As an experienced, disabled jujitsu instructor and gym enthusiast myself, I’ve had instances of my own where people seem to believe I’m dramatising the severity of my health issues, or that I’m treating my ‘wants’ as ‘needs’. The assumption presents as: ‘If you can do ‘X’ then surely you can do ‘Y’ too?’

People see you excel at something physical and sometimes think that skill is synonymous with physical independence. As an athlete, your body becomes conditioned and adapted to a specific task. Indeed, these adaptations can help you in other areas, but they do not nullify or diminish any care needs you may have with other tasks.

I spoke to Aino Tapola, an experienced Finnish table tennis Paralympian, about the Paralympic Committee’s decision on PCAs. She told me: “I think this is a huge barrier for severely disabled athletes who need a lot of help. I haven’t seen this affect any athletes in Finland yet, but I’m afraid that it will in the future, when the number of severely disabled people grow in the Paralympic team. I would increase the number of accreditations for personal assistants. It can be done by the International Paralympic Committee, and it has to be done if they want to make the Paralympics truly equal.”

Aino also shared that even in para-circles, there is a lot of ignorance about care needs. That individual care needs vary greatly from one athlete to another and are often heightened by a foreign environment. Olympic and Paralympic sites are often vast and complex to navigate. She also fears that the current PA policy demonstrates a lack of understanding of the value of a trained and trusted PA, and will make competition less fair if some people’s accommodations are met but others are not. In fact, Aino told me that she and a former competitor once shared a joint assistant, which impacted their ability to perform and recover to their usual standards.

Symptoms, access, and care requirements are incredibly fluid and specific to each individual and each context they find themselves in. Everyone experiences disability wildly differently.

People with disabilities and chronic illnesses, and their PCAs, usually have no choice but to become experts in their respective fields. We learn a lot about what we can or can’t realistically expect of our bodies and minds through trial and error, research, and time. Therefore nobody has a more credible assessment of our accommodations and requirements than us. But despite this, we’re often treated with suspicion and sometimes even contempt.

Vocally advocating our needs as disabled women is hard enough without a public backlash or stakes as high as they were in the case of Becca Meyers. And the bleak irony of this scandal erupting during Disability Pride Month should not be lost on any of us, either.