National / Sports / March 4, 2010

On disabilities and the Paralympics

Dis·a·bil·i·ty, noun:

1. Lack of adequate power, strength, or physical ability; incapacity. (

2. Absence of competent physical, intellectual or moral power. (

“Okay, class. Everybody take a bandana. Doesn’t matter what color,” my gym teacher said while passing around a plastic bag. I reached for one, but my teacher shook his head. “Sara, you go stand under the basketball net.”

He grabbed a bandana himself. “If you’re right-handed, make a fist with your left, and wrap it tightly with your bandana, opposite hand if you’re left-handed.” Everyone did as they were told. “Now, I’ve overheard someone make a comment that stunned me. ‘Sara can’t play basketball. She’s got one hand.’” He threw a basketball at me, fiercely, and I caught it without a flinch. I should be stunned by the comment, but I heard it too.

He told the class to stand up. He looked at me, and raised his hands. “Check.” The class watched while he dribbled. I blocked and snatched the ball from under his missed shot. Dribble back, return to the basket and shoot. Two points.

He smiled. I did exactly what he wanted me to do.

“I want all of you to play the remainder of our tournament with one hand tied at all times. When you play against Sara, I want you to watch how she moves, and pick up on how she manages to sink it every time,” he said.

The class continued, and at the end of the day our lead basketball player approached me. “Sara, you’re amazing at basketball. With or without two hands.”

When you offer to help me with a pity face, I forget where I am. When you tell me I can’t lift boxes because I have one hand, I stare in horror. I forget that you haven’t grown up with me. I forget that you haven’t seen me quickly pick up every sport in PE. That you haven’t seen me dominate in dodge ball or nail shortstop in baseball. I forget that my general klutz behavior can be seen as “oh, she has one hand” behavior. I forget that this isn’t Highland Park and you haven’t been introduced to my world of “disability.” Well, news flash: being disabled rocks. I have a nub named Fred (ever wonder why there’s a smiley face on him? Now you know. He answers “yes” and “no” questions.)

Because of my disability, I’ve been a member of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, the number one rehabilitation hospital in America. The RIC has given me opportunities to learn and master kayaking, scuba diving, wake boarding, snowboarding, rock climb, white water raft…how many “normal” people get to say they’ve done all that and more every year for the past nine or so years? This RIC has an excellent determination to give people with disabilities opportunities.

Opportunities like the Paralympics.

War veterans come home from an intense atmosphere that you can only dream of understanding. Either you have the military background or you don’t. They come home to civilian life – which in itself can be difficult, let alone coming home injured. Welcome to the world of “can’t.” It’s hard to have a major change, and losing a limb is no easy fiasco, but in so many places – we forget how quickly we adapt. If you break your arm, it’s not the end of the world – you slowly figure out adaptations until you’re back to your “normal” self. The Paralympics started out for World War II veterans in London. It’s grown since then to be games paralleling the Olympics, but for people with physical disabilities.

This winter, the Paralympic Games will be held in Vancouver from March 12 to March 21. The following events will be held: biathlon (various distances for men and women, with categories of visually impaired, sitting and standing), ice sledge hockey, downhill skiing for men and women (categories: visually impaired, sitting and standing), wheelchair curling, cross-country skiing (sitting and standing categories).

Yes, you read that right. Visually impaired downhill skiing. People who are legally blind are whizzing down mountains for the Paralympics. And I can say with certainty that every single one of them is a better skier than you or me. And not just by a little bit.

For the time being, the Paralympics are not televised in the United States. There’s a petition going to change that, but until the Games are televised, I’ll keep on my toes to ensure that you get the latest news, interviews with Paralympic Athletes, or maybe a few coaches.

Allegedly, disability is synonymous with inadequate.

Disability indeed.

Quick facts:

Olympic Athletes & Officials: 5,550

Paralympic Athletes & Officials: 1,350

Countrys in Olympic Games: 80+

Paralympics: 40+

Sara Koehnke

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