A paralympian calls for authentic representation of people with disabilities

Mallory Weggemann is just weeks from diving into the Tokyo Aquatics Centre to compete for her third Paralympic medal (she won a gold and a bronze at the 2012 London Games). In addition to her physical training in the weight room and swimming pool, Weggemann is also focusing on mental fitness to get ready for sport’s biggest stage. In an email to Well+Good, she states, “I have spent a great deal of time fine-tuning my mental preparation for competition.” Taking part in sports is not just a physical endeavor, it requires a lot of mental strength.

In light of this, Weggemann clarifies, “mental strength isn’t about ‘toughing it out’; it’s about heightened self-awareness and emotional maturity.”

It’s important to recognize your “tipping point,” as Weggemann describes it, caring for mental health and mental strength can be accomplished by withdrawing from competitive events prior to a competition, such as the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 or the French Open in May. The author emphasizes the importance of acknowledging [our limitations] and creating boundaries. “[Boundaries] are not put in place to restrict what we can achieve.”

The limitations people project onto Weggemann don’t hold her back: She has broken 34 American records and 15 world records. Wegegemann wants to eliminate the limiting assumptions people with disabilities have about people who are able-bodied. We have much room for improvement in the way our society views disability, and people in the disability community have to advocate for themselves, for basic civil rights, all the time, she says. The Paralympic Movement proves that living with a disability doesn’t mean you are physically incapable…Every paralympic athlete is also living with a disability; on the field of play, we are changing perceptions of disability by showing rather than telling.”

“The Paralympic movement has helped to change perceptions of disability by using the field of play as a catalyst to change those perceptions. “-Mallory Weggemann, Paralympian

During the Paralympics, Weggemann says, the event provides a catalyst for a discussion about life with disability and how to thrive in it. The first step should be just that. We have a lot of unconscious bias in our society regarding disability, and our understanding of it is often shaped by inauthentic representation or a lack of representation,” she says. According to statistics, one out of every four people in our society has a disability. However, how often do you see people with disabilities represented in the media? What do you mean? Are you entertained? Do you work in politics?”

There are so many stories about people with disabilities that make headlines or are told on big and small screens that focus on “overcoming” their disability in order to accomplish seemingly superhuman feats of strength and determination. In other words, they present disabled people as somehow lesser. It is neither of these framings that represents most people with disabilities-and that is what Weggemann says needs to change.

Stereotypes are formed in part based on how we see [groups of people] represented in entertainment. “But if disability isn’t part of the narrative, or if it is inaccurately portrayed, we have subconsciously reinforced the idea that there is no place in society for people with disabilities or that they must fit into our narrow mold and there are no variations,” Weggemann says. In order to change perceptions, we must have authentic representations-one that shows people with disabilities are more than their disabilities; they are spouses, parents, siblings, children, friends, community members, business leaders, actors, athletes, politicians, models, and the list goes on. “One of the greatest misconceptions about living with a disability is that it is the same for everybody.”

As we learn about the stories of these athletes and their triumphs as the Tokyo Paralympic Games begin August 21, let’s remember that inspire is a verb, an action word. The Games should be a catalyst for change, as Weggemann suggests. Allies with able-bodied bodies should take up Weggemann’s mantle and advocate for a more authentic representation of what it’s like to live with a disability, taking the burden of education off those who live it. Weggemann says, “We can all do our part by taking responsibility for our own education, addressing our own unconscious biases, and remembering that the words we use matter; they influence our ability to communicate.”

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