As a wheelchair athlete, I simply require special equipment to play my sport.

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FREQUENTLY I’m asked why I’m an advocate for inclusion to sports. Mostly it is because I may use a wheelchair. But I do not see myself as disabled. I may see myself as having physical challenges, but don’t ever “dis” my abilities.

In an effort to gain and maintain access to the only accessible tennis courts in my community, I encountered opposition at our local parks and recreation board. Often alone as the voice of inclusion in my small but affluent community of Gig Harbor, I have encountered adversity and public displays of opposition.

Recently, after listening to myriad public comments, including being referred to as not “normal,” one person followed up with a written comment to the board: “It seems sad that one person can impact the fun of many … we outnumber the wheelchair players by at least 30 to 1 … I strongly doubt she will be able to get even 1 court filled with only wheelchair players. …”

‘My take’

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Although the most common excuse I hear for such comments is “stupidity,” it seems that fellow athletes should at least have a better understanding of athleticism and sportsmanship.

In this case, the opposition’s reasoning for dissent was that the nonaccessible courts have bird droppings and parking issues.

On my drive home from the board meeting, I developed a new definition of the term disability. After listening to these non-disabled athletes complain about having to play on courts with bird droppings and parking issues, requiring them to walk across the street, I realized, “I am not the disabled one; they are.”

Adrienne Barlow has worked as a firefighter and scientist. Her motto: Never back down from a challenge or adversity.
Adrienne Barlow has worked as a firefighter and scientist. Her motto: Never back down from a challenge or adversity.

As a wheelchair athlete, I simply require special equipment to play my sport. However, no amount of money or equipment apparently could ever enable these protesters to overcome the obstacles of parking and bird droppings.

In an effort to understand another person’s mindset, I simply asked myself, “What makes a person take so much for granted?” Finally, I realized the only reason why the physically impaired are perceived as “handicapped” is because of other people’s feeling of imposition and sense of betterment. Quite simply, it is not the perception of myself that attaches the label of “handicap,” it’s the perception of others and lack of opportunities that render me and other adaptive athletes as disabled. For me, I just need the right equipment, an opportunity and my civil rights to enjoy and live my life.

After all, I had already survived the extremes of paralysis brought on by an extremely rare muscle disease of which I overcome every time I play my sport.

Ultimately, humanity must find it in itself to develop an understanding and appreciation for everyone. Inclusion in sport and recreation creates many opportunities for addressing humanitarian issues. Just as when a soldier fights for another person’s freedom or when a firefighter pulls another human out of a burning building, one person does matter. So, never give up on the point. This point being a right to access a sport.

Most important, as a human I am able and have a right to access and recreate. Access and integration are not dictated by numbers, they are earned via existence and are civil rights.

I survived. That gives me the right. So, let’s play ball!