by Andrea (with contributions from Courtney)
I’m writing this post because I have a serious question that I’m hoping you can help me with. When it comes to promoting para-sport, do you catch more flies with honey or with vinegar?
Let me explain — as many of you already know, I myself am an able-bodied athlete who first became involved in disability sport as a guide for a skier with a visual impairment (Courtney). Skiing with Courtney was an introduction to a whole new world of sport. I’ve loved learning about para-sport — so much so that I made it the focus of my PhD research at the University of British Columbia. As a lifelong athlete, disability sport gave me a new perspective on a world I thought I knew very well. Being involved in para-sport has made me see sport and society through a critical lens that I find is often absent in conversations about able-bodied sport. And through this lens, I see more questions than answers including what do we mean by fairness, inclusion and equality? What does it mean to strive for physical excellence when bodies don’t conform to familiar ideals? How do we use sport to advance disability rights agendas? Or can sport, even para-sport, further marginalize certain groups? I love getting to ask these questions and I’m extremely grateful to everyone who has indulged me on this blog and joined in the conversations.
While I’ll freely admit that I enjoy being a part of a para-sport community and have derived many benefits from it — I’ve made excellent friends, gone exciting places and I have quite the wardrobe of team jackets — underlying all this is a deep commitment on my part to supporting and promoting para-sport. But recently I’ve started to question how exactly I go about promoting para-sport.
On a regular basis I encounter opportunities to ‘inform’ people about para-sport — I’m guessing many of you do as well. This might be in the form of a conversation — for example, someone sees a photo I posted on Facebook from a recent race and asks me about it. The people commenting typically fall into two categories — those who have some knowledge of para-nordic skiing and those who have little knowledge or experience with para-sport but assume I participate as an act of charity.
I have to admit both responses make me a little uncomfortable. People in the first category probably saw Brian McKeever profiled during the last Olympics/Paralympics and will often make comments like, ‘Wow, you must be really fast to stay ahead of them.’ I don’t want to respond with ‘Well no — I’m not fast at all but neither is the skier I guide’ because I don’t want them to walk away thinking para-nordic skiing is not a competitive event. But if I simply smile and say ‘Yes — really fast’ then they may never consider that there may be a local skier that they could be guiding. Like able-bodied skiers, visually impaired skiers come in all speeds. Some train hard and some don’t. Some race and some shuffle. Some want to feel the burn of hard intervals and some just want to get some fresh air. But in most cases they all require a guide. My challenge is that, in a short conversation, I have a hard time expressing this diversity.
People in the second category assume I guide as an act of charity: ‘Good for you. I read to the blind’ or ‘I watched the Paralympics. They are so inspiring.’ This type of comment annoys me because, as I stated before, my involvement has nothing to do with charity — I chose to participate in para-sport because I myself love sport, I received a lot of support from others in my own athletic career and now I feel it is time for me to help others achieve their goals. I choose to guide (rather than coaching or organize events) because I think it suits my particular skill set and personality. I like racing, I love tactics and strategies and I love being in pressure situations. I also spent most of my rowing career in ‘bow seat’ — so I have a lot of experience when it comes to executing a race plan, making split second decisions and finding exactly the right call to get a teammate’s attention.
I find these types of conversations challenging because I’m not sure how much or what to say. Chances are the individual is just making small talk and doesn’t really want a history of Paralympic sport, a lecture on the current issues and debates facing the Paralympic movement or my personal biography. But they started it — they expressed some interest — if I were truly an advocate for para-sport wouldn’t I jump at every opportunity to educate people? Or would that just turn them off?
The other situation that occurs on a fairly regular basis has to do with the inclusion of para-athletes in sport events. For example, a short while ago, Joan wrote a post about a ski race that refused to include para-nordic classes in their event because they felt the request would be too onerous on the race committee. As a supporter of para-sport and a local volunteer/coach for a para-nordic program, I am often in the position of having to liaison with race organizers. There are basically two approaches you can take, the first being what I will call the vinegar approach — you go to the race organizers and inform them that athletes with a disability will be participating and you would like to discuss with them the accommodations that need to happen in order to facilitate this. Basically, you send off the vibe that you assume they will cooperate or they risk being called out on the basis of discrimination. You enter the meeting armed to the gills with examples of how other races have bent over backwards to accommodate this group of athletes and inform them that you expect no less.
The second approach, the honey approach, is less confrontational — you send a friendly message asking if it would be possible to include some athletes with a disability in their event. You tell them you’ve heard a lot of great stuff about the race and you have a few individuals who would really be thrilled to have a chance to participate. You downplay the accommodations that will be needed, inform them that the whole thing is really quite simply, that you will gladly take on any additional tasks required to make this happen and that you are so thankful they are supporting this endeavour.
Personally I’ve seen both methods used with varying degrees of success — and seen both encounter resistance. I’ve even, on occasion, started with honey and ended with vinegar… I’ve seen race organizers include para-athletes because they ‘had to’ and then a year later include them because they ‘want to.’ I’ve certainly seen some coaches who were originally resistant to para-sport become whole-hearted advocates for inclusive sport after they realized how rewarding (and challenging) it can be to work with athletes with a disability.
The other thing that got me thinking about how we promote and advocate for para-sport was listening to some of the interviews I have been conducting with individuals who read and write for this blog. As many of you probably know, this blog is part of my PhD research project and a major component of this project consists of talking to people about how and why they use the Internet to communicate with other members of the Paralympic movement, find out information about para-sport and advocate/promote para-sport.
In interviewing people, I have realized there are many reasons that people participate in this blog as readers and writers. Since I did promise I would share my research findings with the group, here is one of my initial conclusions: The majority of those interviewed could be divided into two distinct “teams” with very different feelings on how we can/should effectively promote para-sport. The first group, “Team Vinegar”, feels we need to be more aggressive with our posts — that this space should be a place to express anger at the ways in which athletes with a disability are continually marginalized. They want to see more posts that speak to these grievances and that act as a rallying call to everyone who wants to see changes made. When asked what posts they most enjoyed or felt were the most valuable, they referenced what I would consider to be some of the more ‘militant’ posts. When asked what types of posts they wanted to see more of, they replied they wanted posts that spoke passionately, addressed injustices and really pushed the boundaries of ‘polite’ speech.
The members of the second group, “Team Honey”, are equally passionate about para-sport and promoting opportunities for people with disabilities. They saw AthletesFirst.ca to be less about rallying people to a cause and more about recruiting new supporters. They saw it as a place to educate people who were not familiar with para-sport or had limited exposure. They wanted to write and read posts that demystified the world of para-sport and opened it up to new athletes, new volunteers, new coaches and new fans. They valued the posts that gave people an insider’s view of para-sport and they didn’t want to be the squeaky wheel. This group of individuals was very cautious of taking any approach that could potentially turn people away from para-sport or present the Paralympic movement as anything than friendly and accommodating.
These are two very different views of what AthletesFirst.ca is for and what it does. And I have to say that even though I ‘created’ this site — and I use that term very loosely because, as you know, there is a whole team that helped build this blog and continues to write for it — I’m no longer sure which of these versions I want to see. Do we take a militant approach and rage against injustices? Or do we adopt a less confrontational approach and seek to educate people — even if it occasionally means biting our tongues? Can we catch more flies with honey or with vinegar?