U.S. Paralympians Celebrate International Day Of Persons With Disabilities
BY Stafford Braxton
December 12, 2016

As we celebrate International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we have seven Paralympians share in their own words what it means to be an athlete with a disability.  In Rio, these athletes helped Team USA bring home a record-breaking 115 medals across 20 sport disciplines. Together, they have competed in eight summer Paralympic Games and four winter Paralympic Games. From athletes with amputations, to those who use wheelchairs to those with visual impairments, these individuals compete for one team – Team USA.

Evan Austin – Swimming 

What does it mean to you to be able to represent other Americans with disabilities as a U.S. Paralympian?
It is a true honor to represent people with disabilities on an international stage such as the Paralympics. Myself, along with everyone involved in the Games, proves every single time we compete that no matter what adversities we face in our lives, anyone can be successful with hard work and determination. 

With the growth of the Paralympic Movement, how has the perception towards people with disabilities changed?
I think the perception of people with disabilities is certainly changing. We are in an age where disabled athletes can get our messages out to new audiences in a way like never before. Every time we compete or give a speech, our message is to become informed and gain perspective about a group of people that has sometimes gone overlooked or been underestimated. 

What do you want people to know about being a Paralympian?
The thing I want people to know most about being a Paralympian is that we are competitors first and disabled athletes second. I don’t get up early, jump in a cold pool, and stare at a black line for hours and hours a day to show the world I have a disability. I do it because I want to compete at the highest level with the best athletes in the world. The fact that we all have a diagnosis or are missing limbs is just a bonus to what makes the competition so exciting.

Aaron Pike – Nordic Skiing

What does it mean to you to be able to represent other Americans with disabilities as a U.S. Paralympian?
It's a privilege to be able to represent the U.S. Paralympics and Americans with disabilities.  It's a chance to break stereotypes and for people to see us as athletes first instead of someone with a disability.

With the growth of the Paralympic Movement, how has the perception towards people with disabilities changed?
I think that it has slowly changed with social media being a powerful tool to showcase Paralympians.  Because of increasing media attention and increased broadcast time for Paralympic events there has been a huge increase in the Paralympic Movement. Much more media coverage is needed though in order to spark more interest in the Paralympics. 

What do you want people to know about being a Paralympian?
That at the elite level it's no different than the Olympics and that most Paralympians would love it if adaptive sports were opened up to anyone, not just people with a physical disability.  Adaptive equipment such as a basketball chair is an equalizer and makes for an equal playing field. 

Matthew Simpson – Goalball

What does it mean to you to be able to represent other Americans with disabilities as a U.S. Paralympian?
Being a Paralympian is an honor. Many people don't have any firsthand knowledge of people with disabilities, and as awareness grows both at home and abroad, we as paralympians really get to be ambassadors for sport and disability. That opportunity to educate people is just as valuable as the chance to compete. As Paralympians we raise the bar on what people believe is possible with a disability, and because of that we can raise the bar of expectations for all people with disabilities. 

With the growth of the Paralympic Movement, how has the perception towards people with disabilities changed?
One of the biggest challenges faced by people with disabilities is lowered expectations. Unfortunately, people perceive a disability and often lower their expectations for what someone might be capable of. That kind of attitude can also impact the person with the disability. If you are surrounded by people with low expectations for you, you will start to believe less of yourself. People with disabilities who earn the right to be called Paralympians are the people who have learned to break through these lowered expectations. We are the ones fortunate enough to get to share that with the rest of the country in the world. We all want people with disabilities to be able to lead normal lives, and if we can raise the ceiling of possible, we can set the bar of expectations at normal. I love meeting people who may or may not know much about the Paralympics, but who can look past the disability and recognize the challenge and the accomplishment of being a Paralympian. 

What do you want people to know about being a Paralympian?
All of us as Paralympians want the story to be about sport first. We invest our time, sweat, blood and tears into being the best at what we do. Sometimes we fall short, but we are competitors first and always. We want people to be fans first and forget the disability. When people get beyond the impairment to appreciate the sport and the world class competitors, they have understood what the Paralympic movement is truly all about. 

Haley Bernanbaum - Swimming

What does it mean to you to be able to represent other Americans with disabilities as a U.S. Paralympian?
To me being able to represent other Americans with a disability as an athlete is a great opportunity. So many people with disabilities are constantly told that we cannot do certain things. To me representing people with disabilities is a way to show other people what they are capable of doing.

With the growth of the Paralympic Movement, how has the perception towards people with disabilities changed?
I feel like the perception of people with disabilities is slowly changing. There is still so much that society does not understand, but society is starting to see what people with disabilities can do instead of what we can’t do, even if we do things a little bit differently.

What do you want people to know about being a Paralympian?
I want people to know that being a Paralympian did not come easy. This was not handed to me. I have had to work hard to achieve my goals and train just as hard as any other elite level athlete.

Jamie Stanton – Alpine Skiing

What does it mean to you to be able to represent other Americans with disabilities as a U.S. Paralympian?
It is an absolute honor to be able to represent the United States as a member of Team USA. Members of Team USA always put forth 110 percent effort in everything they do and personally being able to represent other Americans with disabilities shows that anything is possible with a positive attitude and a hard work ethic. I want to inspire other Americans with disabilities and be a mentor by helping them overcome adversity and rise to the top

With the growth of the Paralympic Movement, how has the perception towards people with disabilities changed?
I feel that the perception has changed in a very positive manner. People are more open minded and accepting of an individual with a disability than they may have been 25 years ago. With the Paralympic Movement people are able to witness the amazing feats that individuals with disabilities can accomplish.

What do you want people to know about being a Paralympian?
Being an Olympian or Paralympian is something that very few people can say they have achieved. By being a Paralympian, I have been able to travel the world, meet extraordinary people and make memories that I will never forget. Hard work, determination and a positive attitude has allowed this to happen.

Chuck Aoki – Wheelchair Rugby

What does it mean to you to be able to represent other Americans with disabilities as a U.S. Paralympian?
Representing other Americans with disabilities is one of the things that I am most proud of in my life, particularly for youth with disabilities. Growing up, my sports heroes were all able-bodied, like Kevin Garnett, and Kirby Puckett. I didn't really have any athletic role models with a disability. I hope to show kids with disabilities that elite athletes who look and get around just like them. 

With the growth of the Paralympic Movement, how has the perception towards people with disabilities changed?
I think that more people have begun to understand what the Paralympics are, and how much they mean. As such, perceptions have begun to shift in seeing people with disabilities for their potential, rather than limitations. However, I do think there is still a ways to go, unfortunately. I still feel that people with disabilities aren't seen in the public eye as much, but with greater exposure, this can change. 

What do you want people to know about being a Paralympian?
Being a Paralympian is the greatest honor and privilege I have ever had in my life. I wouldn't trade the experiences I've had for anything, and representing our country makes me proud every day. While it is an immense amount of work, and time spent on the road, it's truly an honor to be doing so. I hope that everyone in the U.S. can continue to embrace the Paralympic movement!

Nicole Roundy -Snowboarding 

What does it mean to you to be able to represent other Americans with disabilities as a U.S. Paralympian?
Too often people assume that amputation, paralysis, and blindness is a one way ticket to social security and a sedentary lifestyle. I want people to see Paralympians as the amazing athletes they are, not an amazing athlete because of their disability. In order to understand that, we must not only know what we're capable of, but also expect people to overcome their challenges. If we look at people with disabilities and only expect them to get up in the morning, we've given them an excuse to live sedentary lives. There is a difference between providing support when it's needed and enabling people to use their disability as an excuse. What I represent is the human spirit to not only prevail, but also to exceed expectations.

With the growth of the Paralympic Movement, how has the perception towards people with disabilities changed?
I think it's improving, but we still have a long way to go. I remember ten years ago, people shying away from me and discouraging their children from "staring." By doing so, they taught intolerance and that differences are not "ok." I applaud the parents who approach me today and ask me to educate their children and share my "robot" leg. The Paralympic Movement gives visibility to people with disabilities in a way that encourages them to succeed but also shows the world that we are substantial human beings that have much to offer. We can make the world a better place if society allows it, encourages it, and supports it.

What do you want people to know about being a Paralympian?
Its not all rainbows and unicorns. We not only have the same dedication and training as our able-bodied counterparts, but we also have more hurdles to overcome and less opportunity. As an above-knee amputee I have to make mechanical adjustments to my prosthetic before I can participate in ANY sport. Its not just a matter of learning how to do something, its also understanding the bio-mechanical movement I need to get from my prosthetic in order for my body to adapt to the activity. The day-to-day life is full of frustrations and hurdles, but the end result is truly amazing. 

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Team USA

Published December 3, 2016


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