Opinion | How a Double Amputee Completely Changed This Risk Manager’s Perception of the Word “Disability”

By: | October 15, 2021

Joanna Makomaski is a specialist in innovative enterprise risk management methods and implementation techniques. She can be reached at [email protected]

During the 2021 Paralympic Games, I remember sitting in the spectator bowl at the new velodrome near London, awaiting track cycling events.

Athletes from all around the world gathered in the center arena. Each nation’s area was marked with its flag. Coaches, trainers, and therapists worked on each athlete either by giving deep-tissue massages or delivering empowering pep talks. This center area was encircled by an imposing Siberian pine track built on an incredible incline. It was impressive.

An athlete was up from Germany. Seated on his bike, readying for the signal to pedal for a gold medal. The score board lit up with the athlete’s name, country, event and timing. My jaw dropped. I pulled out my phone to do some quick calculations. I calculated that this particular athlete was cycling at 62 kilometers per hour, about 39 miles per hour. He was fast, fearless, formidable. He was remarkable.

To put this speed into perspective, the average speed for a bike ride through the park is about 8-10 mph. If chased by a crazed wild bear, maybe we’d reach 15-20 mph.

This athlete did not win gold. But that day, this athlete changed me forever. He permanently altered my perspective; opened my eyes, my heart, my mind. It was a powerful awakening for me. I was genuinely transformed.

He rode the cycling track at hurricane speed with only one arm, and one leg. Both his left arm and leg had been amputated. There was no bionic prosthetic arm or leg attached to the bike. He was just a high-performance athlete with a right arm and leg cycling in perfect balance at breakneck speed.

This was my first spectator experience of a Paralympic games. That day I watched my stereotypes of persons with “disabilities” melt away.

That day I stopped using the word “disability.” All I saw was ability.

What changed for me that day was how I define superior athleticism.

We should never devalue Paralympians superior athletic performance. Paralympians do not “overcome” their “disability” in order to “participate” in sport.

These individuals train hard and have talent. They strengthen their natural abilities, adapt their impairment to the sport and develop skills that produce the athletes who compete at elite levels.

The idea that any person with a physical impairment can overcome their impairment and become an Olympic level athlete if they just try hard enough is simply wrong.

This misrepresents and distorts the everyday lives of people who live with physical impairments. Impairment or not, not all of us will become high-performance athletes.

Able-bodied persons still do have an advantage, however. People with physical impairments still face barriers.

Most public playgrounds, swimming pools, and outdoor tracks are inaccessible to wheelchair users. So, it is still not an equal playing or training field.

Throughout this COVID-19 pandemic however, with so many facilities closed, new opportunities for physical activity did open up.

Organizations and coaches provided free online workout programs for all including those with physical infirmities. Clearly change is possible.

Our views and words we use at work and play around “abilities” change attitudes.

Changed attitudes help breakdown barriers of inequality for persons with physical impairments in sport, and especially our insurance industry. Our attitudes ought not be our impairment. &

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