Disabled Athletes Deserve Better

By Lyd Lacey

As a Colorado native, I’ve been skiing since I was 18 months and competing since I was 8. As a disabled skier, I’ve gotten good at answering the question: “What happened to your arm?” 

I don’t blame people for not knowing how to react or what to say when they meet a disabled skier, even if the weird questions and backhanded compliments get really old really quickly. Honestly, there aren’t very many of us adaptive athletes, especially in winter sports. At first glance, I don’t look disabled. I use a black, medical-grade shoulder immobilizer with the name of a local PT group on it. Most people quite understandably assume that I’m injured. This leads to many awkward situations.

“Yo, dude! How’d that happen? Must have been a sick jump, right?”

“No, actually. I’m just disabled. It’s nerve damage.” 

I try not to be too harsh or rude with my replies, but there also isn’t a great way to phrase them. It’s difficult explaining nerve damage from a rare disease to someone who was expecting a crazy story about a daredevil teenager.

The conversation will then go one of two ways. They might say something along the lines of “Wow, I’m so sorry. That sucks. It’s so inspirational that you can still ski though! You are so good at skiing for a disabled person. There’s no way I could ski if I were disabled!”,  which is the pinnacle of backhanded compliments. It’s not inspirational that a fourteen-year-old is living their normal life. Now, if I climb Mt. Everest one day, then by all means, tell me I’m an inspiration. But right now, while I am just out here struggling with geometry homework, hanging out with my friends, and skiing, I’m not an inspiration. The second scenario is a lot easier to laugh at— asking me for my medical history and then proceeding to recommend holistic medicine, essential oils, acupuncture, or, since it’s Colorado, marijuana. Trust me, no amount of “off-label” medications will make my disability go away. 

As I said, I don’t blame them for not knowing what to say. I understand that meeting someone like me isn’t an everyday experience. But the way people react to my sling and disability is very telling of how we as a society see disabled athletes—we don’t.

The most recent Paralympic Games (Beijing `22) made history as the most viewed para games of all time. Beijing welcomed a record-setting more than 600 athletes representing 46 different nations. The athletes were the best in their field, demonstrating years of hard work, determination, and effort to get there. But, even as the most viewed games, it was still only a fraction of what the Olympic games receive. Compared to the two billion worldwide viewers the Beijing Olympics brought in, the Beijing Paralympics received 11.9 million, or 0.005% of the Olympic audience. These statistics are astounding. How can it be that the most viewed para games in history have a viewership not even close to one percent of their counterpart?

This disparity might seem bad on paper, and it is. But this is about more than who is watching what on TV. It’s about pay, brand deals and sponsorships, opportunity, and, most importantly, the representation of disabled athletes in mainstream media. From the athletes to the public, to people like me, this affects everyone, including disabled youth sports.

In 2014, I was diagnosed with Acute Flaccid Myelitis (AFM) at six years old. It mostly affected my left arm and lungs. My sickness traumatized me. For a long time, I couldn’t stand to talk about it, think about it, or, god forbid, be asked questions about it. I was terrified of doctors and would scream and cry if I had to see one. I quickly learned how to hide my disability, or as I called it at the time, my muscle weakness. I got good at making excuses for why I couldn’t do things, avoiding any situation where it would come up, and only told my very closest friends. I learned to adapt to my body to the expectations placed upon it and pretended I was able-bodied for as long as I could.

Things started to change once I got to be twelve. I couldn’t hide it anymore, not only because of the mental toll, but also because it started to become increasingly difficult. On my ski team, we began to have dryland after practice. Once I moved up to a different age group, we were now using gates that were bigger and heavier. My body couldn’t handle it without some help.

In 2020, I went back to physical therapy for the first time in nearly five years. That summer, while at a training camp in Mt. Hood, Oregon, one of my wonderful coaches recommended I use a sling while I ski. That was when I started to see my athleticism in a new light — adaptive.

Growing up, I never knew of any para/adaptive skiers. Actually, I didn’t know that was even a possibility. When I began to accept the fact that I was disabled, I got scared. The sport I loved so much, the thing I had been doing since just eighteen months old, might be taken away from me. If I chose to listen to my body and do what worked for me, would I still be allowed to race? Would my coaches want to work with me how I was, or would they try to encourage me to race as an able-bodied athlete? Were there opportunities out there? I didn’t know if there was para-racing. I didn’t know about the “Golden Rule” (an accommodation you can get in alpine skiing when you are a disabled athlete racing against able-bodied athletes, named for Diana Golden), or about adaptive equipment. I didn’t know if coming to terms with being disabled would stop me from skiing.

Luckily, with the help of some friends and coaches who knew an athlete who was missing an arm and competed for a different team, we were able to secure some accommodations, contacts, and other resources for me. I am forever grateful to all of the people who helped me along the way. 

Still, I worry about the kids who don’t have people who can help them as I had. I worry about the kids who stopped their sport, whatever it may be, because they didn’t know they had options. I worry about the kids whose sports don’t have options. I worry about the kids who, like I used to, are still trying to pretend to be able-bodied. I worry about the kids who are afraid to stop pretending for fear of rejection or being left behind.  I worry about the kids who don’t have the financial resources to get adaptive equipment. I worry about the kids whose teammates don’t respect them, or whose environments aren’t supportive. How can we help them?

There are never any easy answers. Money isn’t endless, and resources are limited at best. There are so many barriers for us, from access to equipment to finding teams and even being aware that adaptive sports are an option. But I still have hope. It is vital that we continue the legacy of para-sports, as well as pioneer them into the para-sports of tomorrow. 

We can begin to do this by shining a spotlight on the athletes we have already. Let’s give them the platforms they deserve and provide kids with the role models they need. Let’s pay our athletes more, get them good sponsorship deals, and give them more screen time. Let’s cheer them on from the sidelines just as we do for abled athletes like Mikaela Shiffrin, Simone Biles, and Nathen Chen. We should give them opportunities to continue doing what they love.

We also need to encourage conversations about what it’s like to be a para-athlete. This is different from encouraging strangers to go up to disabled people and bombard them with questions. Instead, we start speaking up about barriers to sports, pay gaps, mistreatment, and more. We can’t begin to solve problems that we don’t know exist, nor can we prevent future systemic problems from unfolding without understanding today’s systems.

Lastly, we need to provide disabled kids with safe places to explore who they are and who they want to be. Have them try out a sport or two, or, if that’s not their thing, enroll them in an art class or a violin lesson. Regardless of what a child enjoys doing, they should be able to do it in an environment that works for them. Since accessible equipment comes at a cost, we need to work on finding ways to lower the economic barriers. Disabled kids deserve to be able to do what makes them happy, period.

When I think back to all the times I’ve been told about how inspirational I am to be living my normal life, or about the new “experimental” drugs on the market that would “totally, no doubt, cure me”, I’m not angry or sad at the person, but rather our society. As I said, it’s not their fault. But I hope that someday soon, people won’t have to go out of their way to understand para-athletes.

Our “In Their Own Words” blog posts represent the views of the author of the blog post and do not necessarily represent the views of SRNA.