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The myth of independence

I watched the webisode ‘Josh’ last week — a short documentary on our very own Josh Vander Vies. I thought it was fantastic — Josh shoots down just about every negative stereotype of disability while simultaneously discussing the very real challenges people with disabilities encounter everyday (his statement about the transit system in Vancouver implies that many other cities are not nearly as accessible…). But one thing in particular that Josh said got me thinking. He explained that he doesn’t enjoy grocery shopping because it means asking for assistance.

I might be the wrong person to write this post. I don’t know what it is like to try and navigate a grocery store in a powerchair when most items are out of reach. I’m not exactly tall… I’ll admit there have been days when I’ve decided I don’t really need that item on the top shelf because I don’t want to disturb someone and ask for help — but that’s a pretty trivial comparision — I can’t imagine what it would be like to have to ask someone to assist each and every time.

Why am I talking about grocery shopping on a sports blog? I thought it was a good introduction to what I term ‘the myth of independence’ — the over-valuing (in my opinion) of one’s ability to ‘do it on our own.’

The myth of independence is a common motif in sport — just take a look at some of the commercials appearing in the lead up to London 2012. There’s the lonely long distance runner, the swimmer dragging herself to the pool in the wee hours of the morning, the athlete that reaches inside himself to outmatch his competitors and claim the win… It’s well understood that there is only one spot on the top of the podium and to get there requires strength and perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds. What we sometimes forget is that it will also require help from others.

For people with a disability, independence can be a touchy issue — too often assumptions are made and disability is equated with inability resulting in individuals receiving far more ‘assistance’ than they actually want (or require). For athletes with a disability the issue is compounded — sport is the ultimate example of an ableist environment and athletes may be wary of displaying any sign of dependence which can too easily be interpreted as weakness and used as an excuse to cut them from the squad.

That’s a shame. Because in our quest for independence I think we are overlooking the real potential that exists in interdependence.  What is interdependence? I fell in love with this particularly eloquent definition: “interdependence can be thought of as moving beyond an articulation of needs, as moving into a space of creativity” (Lee, 2009). Working from this framework it is easy to see dependence and independence are exchanges — we all have needs but only some of us are able to meet those needs without outside assistance. By asking for help we incur a debt — usually a debt that can’t be repaid — thus resulting in an imbalance of power within the relationship. But interdependence offers entirely new possibilities — the basic premise is that we all bring something of value to the relationship and we are all entitled to a share of what is produced.

Josh tells a great story in the video — he says that every time he visits a school he asks the kids to raise their hand if they’ve ever asked for help. And then he asks them to raise their hand if they’ve ever helped someone… do you see where he’s going with this? Exactly — asking for help and offering help are good things. At least that’s what we teach kids — why should we hold ourselves to a different standard?

Now back to sports. What could interdependence mean in sports? I have one very practical example. In the lead up to the 2010 Paralympics, Courtney and I were on what was commonly referred to as the Para-nordic Development Squad — a group of athletes who were in the running to compete for Canada at the 2010 Paralympics but who had not yet made the ‘A’ standards that would guarantee them a spot. As a result, this group of athletes and guides had far fewer resources at their disposal than those athletes already named to the team. The challenge was to find a way to send all the development athletes (or the B team) to world cup races in Canada and Europe where they could make the standards and be eligible to be named to the Canadian team. But we did have one thing to our advantage — a (unwritten) policy of interdependence.

As a team we quickly established that everyone brought something unique to the group — and that working together would improve every athlete’s chances of making the team. We quickly broke down the tasks and assigned them based on each person’s abilities. Developing a budget, booking flights, finding uniforms, stocking the wax box, renting vehicles, communicating with the event hosts — everyone had a job. On the ground we continued with the same model — some people drove vehicles and others waxed skis, some did the heavy lifting and others made phone calls — everyone helped make dinner. The result? Everyone qualified!

How is interdependence different from just plain old ‘cooperation’? Interdependence means we look at what a person is able to do as well as what they are incapable of and come up with creative solutions that make the whole more than the sum of the parts. I have an example from our team. We were all flying into Zurich and driving to France for an IPC world cup but not everyone was arriving at the same time and somehow between picking up luggage (including a dozen ski bags and wax boxes) and trying to find rental vehicles the group managed to get split up (and the Zurich airport reminds me of the Labyrinth —staircases going in every which direction except the one you are trying to go in… if you have a mobility impairment it’s a nightmare). It was decided that a few athletes should stay with the gear and two people should go looking for the vans and drivers – Mary and Courtney. Why those two? Well Courtney has an exceptional sense of direction – if you’re trying to navigate a maze you want her on your team. But she can’t read signs that are high off the ground – like most of the signs in an airport. Mary can read signs and she is the world’s friendliest person – she can ask anyone for directions and get a good answer (regardless of whether or not they have a language in common). But because of her brain injury she becomes disoriented easily and can get lost in unfamiliar settings. Together they are the perfect team to go hunting for a lost car and driver (it was me BTW – I have no sense of direction but I do have a driver’s license). Over the years, we have developed many similar partnerships – we know who can wax skis the fastest, who can pull together a grant application or design an poster and who can do the heavy lifting.

That’s a simple example but I encourage you to think about your own sport club or organization. Do you view adaptive programs as ‘high needs’ programs? Or do you stop and think what ‘abilities’ an athlete might bring to the program? Do you have any examples of dependence/independence/interdependence within sport?

Four athletes and coaches standing in a wax room surrounded by skis.

Harris, Jamie, Alexei and Courtney took on the task of setting up the wax room.