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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Paralympians and politicians


I’ve been watching the Paralympic Games in London. They’re finally getting some air time in the U. S. A. this week, and it’s about time. In Atlanta 1996, the athletes’ village was being torn down while the Paralympians were still competing.

From an early age, I was interested in stories about people and read lots of biographies. Three of my favorites were children’s biographies of Louis Braille (who invented the alphabet for fellow blind readers when he was barely a teenager), Helen Keller, and Annie Sullivan, the “miracle worker” who herself struggled with visual impairment all her life.

I remember being horrified at children who told “Helen Keller” jokes, but also, that the main thing that impressed me about Braille, Keller, and Sullivan was not their disability, as hard as that was.

It was the fact that they made a difference, even worked miracles, in the lives of other people.

Helen Keller, once she could reach out through language, was one smart woman (she earned a degree cum laude from Radcliffe College, among other things). So she said a lot of smart things. My favorite quote is “I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”

You could take that as referring to what, physically, Keller couldn’t do (see or hear). But I don’t usually think of that. I think it is an instruction about how every one of us should live. We can’t do everything or solve all the problems of the world, but that’s what makes it all the more important that we each do what we can.

Something.

Which brings me to the Paralympics.

Having left the United States and, therefore, heard of the Paralympics for the first time some years ago, I’m sure I thought how great that athletes with disabilities can compete at this level. But I’d rarely *seen* the competition for myself.

London 2012 has changed the way I see.

Of course, these are by far the most successful Paralympic Games in history. The crowds are as big as those for the Olympics (or bigger; fewer seats for VIPs and media, more for the screaming British public). The venues are selling out. Even athletes from first-time countries like Guinea-Bissau, coming in last in their heats, are setting season’s bests in front of the biggest crowds they will ever know.

I find myself watching wheelchair basketball and just thinking "it's basketball"; I no longer think right away what is the disability we are dealing with here. It truly is transforming the way I perceive people, the things their bodies can and can't do. If these Paralympics leave a legacy, that may be the most important one. Hearts and minds, as the Americans say.

When I hear the packed Olympic stadium cheering a blind sprinter and her guide runner, I know that what NBCSN shows to American audiences will make people unafraid of disability, and they will perceive sports in a whole new way.

At the very least, it’s a distraction from the politics of the moment, because it shows us all that is good and inspiring about human effort. People shout for the athletes because they are accomplishing something great, not just to hear their own noise.

There is a family story that my aunt Karen was once having trouble getting her car started. This caused the driver behind her to get stuck, so, he sat in his car and honked the horn.
After a while, still having no success, Aunt Karen got out, went back to the other guy's car, and spoke through the window. "How about this," she said. "You come help get my car started, and I'll sit back here and honk your horn."
Fortunately, he laughed (rather than shooting her).

The Paralympians are the metaphorical car starters of our world. I don't care if your favorite politician is Paul Ryan or Edward Kennedy (neither, not that you asked), most people can barely imagine what these athletes have to overcome. *And then* they go out and fight for gold medals.
What would the world be like if there were fewer horn honkers out there? If instead of just sitting and shouting, we got up and helped fix things?

The bumper sticker says “Honk if you love” so-and-so.
Well, don’t honk if you love the Paralympics. Get up and help start something!

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