Disability 101: Pity is never appropriate
January 1, 2008
Too often, when an able-bodied person sees an individual in a wheelchair, the first reaction inside their own mind is, “Oh, that poor person. I should help them.” This is always unstated, of course, but it comes out in their behavior. When a person insists on pushing someone in a wheelchair without regard as to whether the help is needed, the pity reaction is coming out. However, pity is never appropriate.
I do not want you to feel sorry for me. I don’t feel sorry for myself. My disability is not who I am. It’s a glitch that requires me to do things a bit differently than others, but it’s not who I am. When you approach me feeling sorry for me, even unstated, it makes me uncomfortable. So let me tell you more stories about disabled athletes so that I might convince you that pity is inappropriate.
While I have been participating as a disabled athlete with Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC), I have been extremely fortunate to meet, bike and ski with some world caliber athletes. Let me introduce a few of them to you.
One of the first adaptive athletes I met was Tim Patterson, a summer Keystone resident. Tim, a paraplegic, was very patient with my early handcycling efforts. But Tim rides his handcycle in marathons. He’s been one of the top finishers in the L.A. and San Diego marathons, handcycling division, and he holds the course record in the Salt Lake City marathon with a time of 1 hour and 27 minutes, averaging 18 mph.
He rode his handcycle from Boston to St. Louis and has handcycled Ride the Rockies, all 405 miles and 29,500 ft. elevation gain. When we rode together, Tim held back to encourage me. But when an able-bodied biker passed us saying “Good work, guys,” Tim took off at top speed, passing the able-bodied biker who was furiously pedaling in an unsuccessful attempt to hold Tim off.
I’ve had the privilege of meeting Steve Ackerman, a handcyling legend and Fort Collins resident. Steve was one of a group of paraplegics who handcyled around the world on a 13,000 mile trip of 246 days. He and two other paraplegic friends used One-Offs (adaptive mountain bikes) to bike the entire 105 mile White Rim trail in Utah with no able-bodied assistance. I’ve had the chance to mountain bike with Steve the last two summers during BOEC’s Bike Festival in Keystone. Mostly I just ate Steve’s dust.
At BOEC’s mono-ski camp in Breckenridge last February, I met Sarah Will, a paralympic gold medal mono-skier and Vail resident. Sarah, a paraplegic, was a member of the US Disabled Ski Team for 11 years. She competed in four paralympic games including Albertville, Lillehammer, Nagano, and Salt Lake City and won 12 gold medals and one silver. She was inducted into the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 2004. Don’t let Sarah’s tiny 5-foot 1-inch frame fool you. She’s been clocked mono-skiing at speeds of 65 miles an hour and she takes her mono-ski on the halfpipe to work on her tricks.
I could go on and on telling you about other disabled athletes, but space does not permit. On any given day you might meet one of these world caliber athletes out in our community. If they are not on their handcycle or their mono-ski, they’ll be in their wheelchair. I think it’s safe to say that they do not want you to feel sorry for them, because they do not feel sorry for themselves. Granted, not all of us using wheelchairs are athletes of this caliber. Nevertheless, pity is never appropriate.