What It Means to Watch the Paralympics For the First Time as an Openly Disabled Woman

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I grew up loving the summer Olympics. I’d cheer on competitors from my couch and watch in awe as they flipped, dove, swam, and ran their way to Olympic medals. But every four years, despite the entertainment value of the Olympians’ athletic prowess, I felt a nagging sensation of sadness knowing that my body felt different than those of the chiseled athletes I saw on TV. By contrast, my body was routinely frustrating, constantly stubborn, and permanently disabled.

The Olympics were the only sporting event I watched, and despite my physical disability, for much of my childhood and adolescence, the Paralympics never crossed my mind. Paralympians were rarely included alongside Olympians in commercials, and coverage of the Paralympics was so scant that I couldn’t name a single Paralympic event. Furthermore, I internalized so much shame about my disability – and disability as a whole – that I assumed the Paralympics could never compare to the Olympics. I hated how stiff and unforgiving my body was and resented the hours of therapies and procedures I went through for it to become as “functional” as possible. I struggled to understand how Paralympians could embrace their bodies and use them to rise to the top.

It didn’t help that years of internalized ableism caused me to convince myself that the only way to survive in a predominantly able-bodied world was to completely conceal any traces of my mild cerebral palsy. For nine years, I omitted, lied about, and sequestered my disability experiences to such an extent that even my closest friends didn’t know my diagnosis. Some didn’t know I was disabled at all.

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