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Rachelheadshot Posted by:
Rachel Tanenhaus, Department of Public Health 

Rachel is the Program Coordinator for the Healthy Aging and Disability Unit.

  

I love the Olympics.  In February, I stayed up far later than I should have watching elite athletes compete in skiing, ice skating, luge, and other thrilling events.  But my excitement didn’t end with the closing ceremonies on February 28.  For me and for others around the world, Olympic fever continued well into March, thanks to the Paralympic Games. 

The Paralympics take place a few weeks after the close of both the Summer and Winter Olympics in the same location, using the same facilities and equipment, and featuring elite athletes competing at many of the same events.  The difference is that these athletes have mobility impairments or visual impairments.  This is not the Special Olympics(an annual event for people with intellectual disabilities with a focus on participation rather than competition).  This is hard-core, wear-your-mouth-guard, international-level sport. 

Paralympic events are as intense, difficult, awe-inspiring, and breathtaking as Olympic ones, which may be why some people would rather see an integrated Olympicsthan two separate sets of games.  I can understand that myself, although I’ll continue to watch the Paralympics for as long as they occur.  I have heard people say that they find the Paralympics “more inspiring” than the Olympics, but as far as I can tell, most Paralympians just want to be recognized as skilled athletes in a class with their Olympian peers.  It’s incredible when a person wins a medal by hurling down a hill at high speed whether or not they’ve got a disability.  But the Paralympics do change the way people think, in that many folks have never seen or thought about athletes with disabilities before.  For a lot of people, the idea of active, strong, mobile people with disabilities is a new one. 

This year’s Winter Paralympics ran from March 12-21, and included over 500 athletes from 44 countries.  Athletes competed in Alpine Skiing, Cross-Country Skiing, Ice Sledge Hockey, Wheelchair Curling and Biathlon, and I’m proud to say that Team USA brought home 13 medals, including the gold in hockey!  The 2010 Paralympians included 50 Americans, seven of whom hail from New England.  Two competitors, sledge hockey gold medalist Joe Howard (Kingston) and alpine silver medalist Laurie Stephens(Wenham), are from Massachusetts.  

The first question people usually ask when I mention Paralympic events is, “How does that work?”  It depends on the sport and the disability, but the methods usually involve a combination of adaptation and what the International Paralympic Committee refers to as classification. 

For example, sledge hockey players, who have little or no use of their legs (if they have legs), sit in a sled (or a sledge, as it’s called outside the US) with two long blades underneath and use two sharp poles both to propel themselves across the ice and to hit the puck.  Another example:  skiers who are blind or have low vision have guides who ski ahead of them and direct them by voice. 

Within a sport, athletes are classified by type of impairment.  For example, alpine skiers compete in the Sitting, Standing, or Visually Impaired categories.  In the Visually Impaired group, skiers are ranked between B1 and B3 in increasing amount of usable vision, and their run times are modified based on that rank.  The Standing group often includes people without arms or with one leg.  The Sitting skiers compete using mono-skis, devices that allow people to ski sitting down.   Some of the athletes have had disabilities their whole lives; others discovered Paralympic sports after acquiring disabilities. 

Mainstream media coverage of the Paralympic Games is minimal in the US.  NBC showed the opening ceremonies and will be broadcasting a highlights show this month.  Universal Sports Television Network, a cable station not available in Massachusetts, offered a nightly two-hour highlights program during the games.  Limited live and recorded programming is available online at paralympicsport.tv, and I recommend watching the recordings, but streaming video is very different from network television.  Hopefully there will be more opportunities to watch the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London.

How do these athletes get started in their sports?  There are programs for athletes with disabilities around the country, and many organizations focusing on people who are newly disabled, such as Paralyzed Veterans of America, include athletic programs. 

If you are a person with a disability who wants to learn more about making sports a part of your life, or if you are an athlete who has acquired a disability and wants to get back in the game, here are some area resources for you:

New England Paralyzed Veterans of America
AccessSportAmerica
CAPEable Adventures
Kartwheels in Motion
Northeast Passage
New England Disabled Sports
New England Handicapped Sports Association
Outdoor Explorations
Disabled Sports USA (check here for organizations in neighboring states if you live near a Massachusetts border)

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