Honey or vinegar: Advocating for para-sport

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?

8 thoughts on “Honey or vinegar: Advocating for para-sport

  1. Hi, Andrea: Claire forwarded your blog post to me because she knew I’d be interested and couldn’t resist commenting. I’m more on the honey side of the question. Since we moved to the Okanagan eight years ago, I have been a volunteer coach, instructor, and assistant to para-alpine skiers and to Special Olympic alpine skiers and golfers. I’ve also had some limited experience assisting adaptive rowers, including a fabulous times bowing a boat for visually impaired, competitive nordic skiers who were trying out rowing for the first time! what a rush!
    What I have come to appreciate is the benefit of introducing a para or SO athlete to a new sport in an “exclusive” environment where they can learn and develop their skill to a certain level of proficiency, but then I think the real opportunity is to take that athlete into an integrated, inclusive environment where they are a skier, golfer, or rower first and a person with a disability second. This really opens up the opportunity for conversation about the diverse abilities that people have because everyone has some common experience as a reference point.
    What I have been most shocked and disappointed about in the para and SO world are all the rules and regs that exclude people if they don’t have the right type or level of disability. I understand why rules, regs, and criteria are important, but I expected more willingness to be flexible and open to providing people with opportunities.
    Like you, I’m not in this for any “saintly” reason – I’m in this because it is a heck of a lot of fun! I think when people see how much fun we are having, they naturally gravitate to us, want to get to know us, and that opens up the opportunity for education and conversion! I saw this clearly that last time we took our para and SO alpine skiers to a race at Whistler. I was riding in the gondola with three of our athletes, a local instructor, and a vistor from England. We had a great chat and made sure to say “Hi” when we encountered them on the mountain later that day. In the evening, as we were walking through the Village in our distinctive red/white jackets, the woman from England rushed up to us, dragging her whole entourage behind her, to have them meet us and to chat with the athletes about how their racing had gone. She clearly viewed them as fellow skiers, not oddities.
    Best of luck with your research … I’ll follow your blog with interest.

  2. The difficulty getting “integrated” that makes para-sport advocacy necessary is a consequence of the still relatively rare experience that sport organizers have with para-sport participants. There just aren’t enough of them around for most organizers of events to understand what is needed. I bet most organizers of events don’t even think about including para-athletes until at some point (often late in the process) someone on some committee somewhere says, “Hey, does anyone thing we should include ….” Then the committee will have to think about all the “rules, regs, and criteria” Karen mentions, and suddenly the organization has “a problem” they didn’t anticipate. Sometimes it may take someone like Andrea to bring it up, or maybe the question would never get asked.

    Participation at the lowest levels is the key. Karen’s post about enjoying the “honey side” of teaching and learning from para-athletes of many kinds in ” an ‘exclusive’ environment where they can learn and develop their skill to a certain level of proficiency” is the best advocacy that anyone can make. Hundreds of para-athletes using ski hills, gyms, lakes, and trails for their enjoyment and health, will do more for para-sport than any other form of advocacy one can formulate in the academic world. There must be a huge base of participation from which the higher levels of performance can naturally bubble to the top. The base will be the advocacy when the high performance individuals “enter” competitive events. Competitive event organizers will know of that base because they will have seen it in action, and will begin to be truly inclusive in their thinking from the start.

    It is far less valuable for para-sport to have TV coverage, or see some glitzy ads, of a few para-athletes than it is to have everyone seeing people with all kinds of disabilities participating in sport for all the same reasons and in the same places as able bodied people are participating themselves. Money and effort (like Karen’s) spent at the most fundamental levels of any sport are more valuable advocacy than money and effort spent on the elite members of the para-sport community.

    Actually, until the base gets built, I think that all the issues that have been discussed during the life of this blog will never go away. Marginalization is inevitable unless a group is seen as “normal”. The place to develop that normalcy is at the bottom, not the top of the para-sport world.

  3. I think Larry is right. You have to build the base otherwise most people will only be aware of the top athletes. People have to become accustomed to para-athletes as people like themselves who just want to engage in sport as a fun activity that involves competition.

  4. I would vote for Team Honey. I would also not solely focus on the results. The results never tell the whole story (with able-bodied skiers either). The interesting stories that happen before or after the race can be very compelling to other people when they hear them. A particular race may set the focus, but what happens to get there often creates the understanding of “why”. My favorite is a skier with Walden (Patti Kitler is the coach) that had her story in the local paper: when the girl was skiing in her sled she was literally doing rings around her (able-bodied) parents who can’t keep up with her. A very thrilled kid. Skiing has so empowered this girl! I think stories like this (and there are many more) can help bridge understanding with the organizers for why they should be doing it.

  5. I would have to say I am more vinegar than honey. But I prefer to think of my approach as sweet and tangy. My sports advocacy experiences over the years have evolved in their approach, and I’m still trying to find the right mix.
    My earliest memories in this area are not very positive. They were full on honey coated, and left me feeling powerless and defeated. When I was in elementary school I tried out for the volleyball team. I had a pretty good serve, but it was unproductive and dangerous for me to be on the court for the game play. I meekly suggested I be a designated server for someone who as a poor server, thus benefiting both of us. There was no discussion, and I was 1 of 2 girls in my grade who didn’t make the team. That same year I joined an indoor soccer league. I found it hard to follow the movement of the play fast enough to get to the ball, and suggested that maybe if I was in goal and didn’t have to move as much, I might be able to participate in a more productive way. There was no discussion, and I found myself spending more time on the bench, and soon quit the league. In these situations I had asked for my accommodation, provided suggestions on what I needed, but they said no. I had given them the option to say no when I asked if they could accommodate me, and thus I had given them the power to decide my future, how could I argue when I gave them the option to say no? I was defeated. It was years before I reluctantly attempted sports again, and the sport I felt comfortable in was goalball, as sport where I didn’t have to advocate for my needs as it was a sport designed for blind athletes.
    Years later, as an adult, I decided to try joining a running club. It took me 2 years of thinking about it before I got up the courage to approach them. I nicely asked if they could accommodate me and help me find a guide runner. They responded with how much they would love to assist me, but didn’t feel they could at this time. Again, I had used honey, and that meant that I gave them the power, the power to say no. I felt defeated. Fortunately 2 weeks later they called to say they had thought about it, and decided they could help me out. It worked out in the end, but for a long time I felt I had to be grateful to them for accommodating me, and going out of their way. It felt like a privilege to be included in their program, instead of my right to be there. I had given them the power.
    Since then, I have decided that I need to keep the power on my side. I have adopted the vinegar approach, but with a little spoon of honey. I now approach races telling them how excited I am about their race, and that in order for me to participate safely, I have a few simple accommodations. I outline my accommodations, and offer to speak with them more about them if needed. I sign off saying “see you on race day”. I don’t give them the option of saying no. I keep the power so that if they do say no, I can respond with confidence.
    Typically, this approach is well received. I think that the race organizers like knowing what is expected from them for accommodation, and when they are not given a choice, it takes away some of their responsibility to make a decision, as there is none to be made. Recently I received a negative response, encouraging me to change my mind, and putting all kinds of stipulations on my participation. As I had not given up my power by giving the race organizers the option of saying no, I had the confidence to pursue my involvement. After a few exchanges of e-mails, the organizers met my accommodation needs, and the race was completed.
    I like to keep my communications polite, encouraging, positive and sweet like honey so sports organizers feel engaged, but my needs are made known, and my participation in the race is clearly indicated with the tang of vinegar so that I maintain power over my involvement. This balance works well for me.
    I hope that young para-athletes don’t have to face the early experiences of defeat which I had, as those feelings come back to me every time I hear “no”. But now instead of feeling defeated, that two letter words gets my vinegar boiling so I have the courage to keep going.

  6. The question you are asking, Andrea, is one many of us who have been advocating have wrestled with. When do we turn on the “vinegar” and when do we dance around the issues with the “honey”? It is not cut and dry and no matter the stance you take, you will not please everyone. Nor should you try to.

    As our community culture develops, we will continue to see those who are more comfortable taking a quiet approach to their advocacy and also those of us who are very outspoken about seeing change happen in a more immediate manner. I am very much a “do it now” kind of advocate and I recognize the benefits and the hindrances of this approach. However, it is the approach that I have taken and stand behind; no matter the popular opinion on it.

    Regardless of one’s stance on the issue, what you have created with this blog is the opportunity for others to share their thoughts as they see fit and are comfortable with. That mere provision of opportunity speaks volumes in a world that still struggles for a voice – at least a collective one. Because in the end, whether we are asking or telling – our goal is still the same; inclusion, respect and opportunity.

    I look forward to the day that we no longer need to debate the “how we advocate” and just celebrate the collective victory of our results. Many did it before us and now it’s our time to carve our own path.

  7. Wow – really love how many ‘newcomers’ have posted in response to this blog. @Karen – I thought I recognized the name. Claire and I had many great discussion about social justice and sport when we were training together and she did mention to me that you have been volunteering with a para-alpine program in Vernon. I think you are absolutely right – once people can put a face to the athlete in question they would have to have a heart of stone not to want to include them. As I mentioned in my post, I have on occasion encountered coaches who had a hundred and one reasons why athletes with disabilities wouldn’t be a ‘good fit’ for their program – but it only one special athlete to change their mind. And I think you raise an excellent point about the restrictive rules and regulations – this is a big concern for Cross Country Canada right now – we have a few athletes in our system who are ‘unclassifiable’ – meaning that they don’t meet the criteria set out by the International Paralympic Committee in order to compete (they are to ‘able’ according to the classification system). But most of us involved in para-nordic in Canada just don’t have it in us to turn these athletes away – they are fantastic athletes who, because of their impairments, cannot compete in the able-bodied events. By having them compete in para-nordic events they not only get a chance to compete but they also make the fields larger and the races more exciting for other athletes. But… while I think everyone wants to be flexible we are also very aware that by allowing these ‘more able’ athletes into the races we could be inadvertently pushing out ‘more impaired’ athletes – athletes who have very few opportunities to compete. It’s a very fine balance…

    @Larry – I agree with you (I know, I know… we haven’t always seen eye to eye but I think you’ve really hit upon something here). Marginalization and discrimination stems from ignorance (or at least unfamiliarity) – the more visible para-athletes are in our communities (on the trails, at the gym, etc.) the more likely they are to be included when it comes time to plan events, build facilities, etc. @John – I’m seeing some great examples of this with our ‘Skiing is Believing’ program at Whistler Olympic Park – skiers are constantly stoping by, asking about the program, introducing themselves to the participants and then waving when they see them on the trails later in the season.

    @Rodney – so glad to hear you chime in. I know Patti well… 13 years ago she went to bat for me and argued that I should be on the Canada Games team (despite having only 2 races under my belt). I made a promise to her that I wouldn’t just take the free gear and walk away – that the Games would be the start of my ski career and not the end… still trying to live up to the example she sets. And I think your story of the young girl is bang on – we change minds one person at a time – all it takes is one race organizer to meet that young girl and see how excited she is to be on the trails and that organizer will fight to have sit skiers included in the next event. (To blog readers – I should mention that Rodney is a rep for Skigo wax and poles and a long time supporter of para-athletes – he sponsored Paralympic athletes long before it was cool and Margarita – the athlete I am currently guiding – mentioned to me just a few weeks ago how supportive he has been of para-nordic skiers in Ontario).
    @Leona – those are excellent examples! Thanks for sharing. Judging by the conversation here on the blog but also from the comments I’ve seen on Twitter it sounds like most people are coming in on the side of ‘honey’ – your comment was an excellent reminder to me why honey doesn’t always work. Yes it would be nice if we could advocate for para-sport without ruffling any feathers but your point about giving other the opportunity to decide whether or not they should grant you the opportunity to participate (making it a privilege rather than a right) is spot on.

    @Jan – I can’t match you for eloquence so I won’t even try :) but you’re absolutely right – whether we chose honey or vinegar (or sugar & spice) – we are working towards common goals and it is important to keep that in mind. We don’t all advocate in the same way (and if you’re like me you will chose different strategies for different situations) – but that doesn’t mean we aren’t supporting para-sport.

  8. I think Leona has hit upon the perfect combination of honey and vinegar – she is polite and sweet like honey about asking for concessions she needs to participate on equal footing with her able-bodied peers, but strong like vinegar in not giving the powers that be a way out of not including her. Her attitude of “I’m coming whether you like it or not so how can we make this work?” is the approach I too have found most successful because, as Larry accurately points out, “there just aren’t enough [adaptive athletes] around for most organizers of events to understand what is needed.” If we, the individuals involved in adaptive sports, let organizers with likely no understanding of adaptive sport decide our fate, they will, for the most part, choose to say, “We’d really like to help, but it’s just not possible.” not because it’s not possible, but because they don’t know how to make it possible and the not knowing makes them feel overwhelmed. By clearly stating what we need and holding firm on what we need, we don’t give them an out and, as a result, they learn that it’s not usually difficult to include adaptive athletes, paving the way for other adaptive athletes to more easily take part. So a honey-vinegar combination would be my preferred approach……

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