By Shawn Danhouser & Kate Ward
The current healthcare crisis has changed all of our worlds. No one is immune to its effects and unfortunately some of us have lost people we love to the COVID-19 Coronavirus. For those of us involved in our beautiful game of soccer, we hunger for a return to the normality of the training and games that existed before the pandemic. Many of you are experiencing, maybe for the first time, how distant the game can be for athletes with disabilities.
For an athlete with a disability. Many of the aspects that you are experiencing now have been a regular part of their life. Right now, you miss the game. All you want to do is get back on the field again. For players with disabilities the limited opportunities to play is a regular part of their lives. They do not enjoy the number of opportunities to play on different teams and to quickly organize a pick-up game among friends. We all missed one season so far. But when things return to being safe again, you will once again have multiple opportunities to engage in the game. Those opportunities will still be limited in what is offered for disabled athletes or possibly even reduced.
Not having many opportunities to play (any sport really) often means being confined to home and only engaging with family most of the time. If you think you are getting tired of being “cooped up” at home. Try it for a lot longer. This is a temporary stage for you but it will still be the case for these athletes when things change for the better.
Right now, you are not readily able to travel to places you want to go and do things you want to do. You are living with restrictions. Again, many of those same places are not accessible or feasible for some athletes with disabilities. This was an everyday situation for them before the pandemic and will likely be the case again even when things return to normal.
You don’t like the way things are currently, I get it, but take a moment to reflect on how this will be a small, temporary sacrifice in the grand scheme of life for you. This has, and will continue to be, everyday life for many of your brothers and sisters with disabilities. They have the same love and passion for the game as you, but the game is still restricted to them.
I don’t ask for any pity for these players. They don’t want or need it. I do however ask you to reflect on the freedom and accessibility to the game that you regularly enjoy and how you can do your part to make the game more inclusive for everyone in the future. Consider getting involved and advocating for each other.
When we return to the game, let’s do it together.
From a coach with a disability
[My name is Kate] I’m deaf and I wear a cochlear implant. I’m also a Division I college coach.
I’m deaf in a hearing world, and I’m proud of how I’ve learned to adapt to a world not tailored for me.
I can’t speak for everyone who is deaf, and I certainly can’t speak for everyone who has a disability, but I can offer those who don’t have a disability a different perspective on what this “new normal” means for someone like me.
As much of the world begins to transition to returning to “normal,” and we begin our treks back to the soccer field, albeit with some restrictions, many of us are relieved to be returning to a world of sports. For coaches, athletes, and spectators alike, sports can offer a happy escape.
For someone with a disability, sports can offer more than that – Inclusion. Strength. Normalcy. Empowerment.
But, sports are returning in a different way. And, for someone with a disability, this new normal often isn’t just uncomfortable, it’s borderline restrictive and even more isolating for many of us.
I often think that my own disability is largely a societal limitation that has made my actual sensorial/physical limitation much more difficult to understand. Now, more than ever, that feels like the case.
As someone who relies on lip-reading to function both socially and professionally, these masks have been more frustrating than I care to admit. I still wear them, and I hope those around me wear them. But, these masks create an anxiety that I didn’t know existed in my everyday life.
I somewhat naively didn’t think about life and work post-quarantine and that masks would still be around. So, when I realized I might spend the next few months fumbling through even more conversations with my co-workers and players, I felt sick to my stomach. I already think that I’ve had to work twice as hard to prove my intelligence and worth just because others can hear while I cannot, and it irks me beyond belief that I will spend even more time straining to prove myself in a world that struggles to accommodate me.
I’d been (again, naively) looking forward to an abrupt end to the Zoom calls because I also hadn’t thought about the need to continue social distancing in team environments. So, as we begin to plan out a season in which virtual team meetings and the Zoom calls and conference calls continue, the familiar anxiety creeps back up before every meeting.
And conversations six feet apart? Heck, that was a struggle before the masks.
Imagine worrying every day that people won’t think that you are capable enough, intelligent enough, or worthy enough because you can’t hear what they have to say.
But, that’s often the case for anyone with any sort of disability. We are told we are not enough because we live in a world that was not made for people like us.
Look, I get that the masks might be uncomfortable. But, for people with autism, these masks can be downright distressing. Their neurology can make them more sensitive to touch and texture. This means that, for many of them, this time is even more socially isolating despite many places beginning to re-open. Think about that the next time your mask is mildly itchy.
And, for those who are frustrated that they can’t go to a sporting event as a spectator – imagine dedicating your whole athletic career to training for an event, only to be told that it’s cancelled without explanation or consultation, even though the rest of the event is still going on as planned.
That’s exactly the news that elite wheelchair tennis players woke up to this past week – the US Open left wheelchair tennis out of its 2020 Grand Slam. Australian wheelchair tennis player Dylan Alcott said, “please do not tell me I am a ‘greater risk’ because I am disabled. I am disabled yes, but that does not make me sick…” Players weren’t consulted on the decision and Alcott makes a great point, “It is blatant discrimination for able bodied people to decide on my behalf what I do with my life and career just because I am disabled.”
People with disabilities, athletes and coaches alike, are often left out when decisions are made that impact our lives in large ways. We are often not thought about.
So, as you return to the field, start thinking about people like me. More likely than not, you know, coach, or work with someone with a disability. More likely than not, they are facing unexpected struggles in this new normal. We all should be working together to make this situation easier for each other. Make sure people like me are included and thought about in these collaborations and decisions.
I should say, I’m lucky to work for a university that thoughtfully ordered masks that are clear around the mouth for all the people in my program, so though their words will still be muffled behind the mask, I’ll be able to read their lips. I’m grateful beyond belief.
So, as Shawn said, when we return to the game, let’s do it together.