Advocate or Athlete: Is There a Divide Within the Disabled Community?

In Sports, Wheelin' and Dealin' by Kara Sheridan

Too many times we roll or walk along in our lives failing to stop and take note of all the different roles we hold at any given time. Evolving with age, each of us may experience dozens of these different positions throughout our lifetimes.

Many mesh seamlessly, like the often flexible roles in a family. At times, others might create virtual sparks of friction as they compete for priority in one’s life.

It was one of these moments of conflicts that recently shed light on a divide that I had never observed, the distinction some view between athletes and advocates with disabilities.

Identifying strongly with both of these groups, I have always assumed that the two roles bolstered each other, working together to make for greater pride in my achievements in the pool and a unique platform to speak on the needs of Americans with disabilities. This way of life might indeed be true for me, but I was shocked to learn that many people view it quite differently.

Facing a false assumption and encountering another’s reality can be a challenging experience. At a recent leadership conference, I mingled with other young leaders with disabilities and when one advocate shared his honest first impression of me, I was a bit caught off guard!

My fellow conference participant stated, “When I first read that you were a Paralympian in your bio, I thought-she’s one of them. She’s an athlete.” I can honestly say I was not offended because immediately I could see that in this corner of a hotel bar with friends and young leaders, I was about to learn something.

But I had to ask, “One of them?” It seems that at a conference with other young people with disabilities who share many of my views on access, equality, and the treatment of disability as a culture, I would fit in better than most places in this country!

Apparently, I had eventually achieved the goal of assimilation, but I was surprised to learn that some advocates with disabilities view athletes with disabilities as playing on an entirely different team.

I took the opportunity to erase my assumptions and started asking questions, probably more than my new honest friend was expecting!

I began serious adapted sports and advocacy activities around the same time in my life, so I haven’t spent much time as an adult looking from the perspective of just one of these roles.

I learned that some in the disability movement have felt that athletes with disabilities distance themselves from advocacy issues that involve real life situations, outside of sport.

While athletes might grab some of the spotlight in the media or in the public arena, rarely is the time shared with pressing issues of housing, employment, accessibility, equality, and justice for all with a disability.

It also seems that some leaders in the movement feel that adapted athletics generates an elitist community that can sometimes be defined by the severity of the disability.

While classifications are expanding, many sports are seeing a shift toward greater numbers of athletes with milder disabilities.

Finally, many advocates worry that some athletes express the message to the public that to be successful and competitive people with disabilities, we should all embrace sports as an outlet for our energy and passion.

These observations were not completely new to me, but I have always viewed the roles as mutual partners. Of course, I agree that sports are not for everyone.

I’m also aware that there is a stereotype in the public that if you are active with a disability, you must play sports. I’ve been asked by strangers more than a few times, “Do you play wheelchair basketball?” or “You must do wheelchair racing.”

But I know many a tall friend who encounters the same questions from people assuming they play specific sports. Stereotypes are a reality for many of us.

When I have the opportunity to speak to a group on living with a disability, I choose the platform that we must each find our passion no matter what that may be. If your passion is raising a family or working in a high rise, recognize that and set your goals accordingly.

I also use that time with the public to dispel as many myths, generalizations, and misunderstandings as possible. As I reflected further on advocacy and athleticism, I can identify with the sting of your level of disability conflicting with equality in adapted sports.

The classification system, meant to level the playing field, track, or pool, is still very new and must be fairly broad to create classes of reasonable numbers.

This can leave some falling on the more severe end of these classifications faced with additional challenges that can’t always be fixed with more training, better coaching, or even greater determination.

However, I also see the research linking a child’s participation in adapted sports with a much greater likelihood of future employment. As a member of a population with a 70% unemployment rate, this is an important connection that only begins to touch on the opportunities adapted sports have offered me.

At the same time, my work as an advocate for my culture has never ended or changed when I slid into a pool or rolled up to the medal stand. It has taken different forms in that I have advocated for additional media coverage of the Paralympics, increased funding for adapted sports, and strong administration within these important organizations holding the keys to the dreams of so many athletes.

Furthermore, I have not neglected issues on accessibility, education, or the abolishment of pity in the public’s mindset. I emerged from the initial shock of hearing a generalization about a strong part of me with the realization that these assumed divisions or assimilation of roles do not need to be ignored, but learned from.

It is entirely possible to be successful at one, both, or something completely different as a person with a disability. The power comes in recognizing this freedom to choose and making the most of it.

As my friend and I continued to talk and learn together, I felt two very important parts of my identity settle back into part of the bigger picture of me. As I view myself in comparison to people without disabilities, I see the beauty of appreciating people’s differences along with their complementary attributes.

The same turned true as I reflected on the relationship between just two of my many roles.

Are you an athlete with a physical impairment? Tell us your reaction to Kara’s revelation or share your experiences with us. Email us at and join the Online Forum.