Welcome to American Soccer: Disability

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This is the fourth article in the series “Welcome to American Soccer,” which focuses on equal treatment and access to soccer in the United States. The articles focus on where U.S. Soccer stands on a variety of issues and where they need to improve.

Defining Disability

Before I dive into the details of how U.S. Soccer approaches disabled athletes, I feel it is important to acknowledge the vagueness of disability in sport. We often talk about disabled athletes, as if all disabilities are the same. But there are many disabled players in the NWSL or on the U.S. Women’s National Team. Carson Pickett was born without a left forearm or hand. Kealia Ohai is legally blind in her right eye. Many professional players have learning disabilities, such as dyslexia.

So, what does being disabled mean when it comes to soccer? It’s not really clear. In this article, I will talk about the deaf national team and the Paralympic national team. The Paralympic team lists their qualifications here, but they do not cover the full spectrum of disability. Nor does the deaf national team.

In this article, I explore the narratives surrounding disability. It is interesting to think about why we consider disabled athletes in a category separate from the senior men’s and women’s national teams when there are notable players on both sides who are disabled. An important conversation is needed, beyond this article, to think about the segregation of disabled athletes and the perception of disabled athletes as a uniform group.

I understand the diversity within the category of disability, and I hope that in this article I have not come off as though I am sweeping everyone into one category. It’s a complex conversation, which should be led by the disabled community. Able-bodied people, such as myself, need to listen more than we speak. I just hope that through this article I can shed light on how the existing avenues for disabled athletes fall short and spark a conversation about how we improve the situation.

What do I know?

When I began research for this article, I admittedly knew very little about disabled athletes in U.S. Soccer. I assumed that the U.S. probably had a Paralympic team, although I couldn’t tell you whether there was one team or two or five. I couldn’t tell you what kinds of disabilities those athletes had, nor could I tell you how well they had done in recent competition. I couldn’t even tell you what their most recent competition was; the only time I ever hear about disabled athletes is in the lead-up to the Olympics and the Paralympics. And even then, coverage of the Paralympics is usually minimal, enough for media outlets to give themselves a pat on the back and say they did it.

When I started doing my research, I was surprised at how far I had to go for answers. When you go on the U.S. Soccer Federation’s website, and look at all the teams, you can go the Paralympic National Team page. This is not specified on the team site as being a men’s team, but as far as I could tell, all the players were men. If a women’s Paralympic team exists, I couldn’t find any information about them on U.S. Soccer’s website.

The information I was able to find on disabled athletes in U.S. Soccer remained choppy and unclear. There is a Disability Soccer Committee, presumably to advise U.S. Soccer on the best policies for inclusion of disabled athletes. When I did a general search on disabled athletes and U.S. Soccer, the most common result was the U.S. Soccer annual awards and their choice each year for “Player of the Year with a Disability.” In 2018, the award went to Gracie Fitzgerald, who plays for the U.S. Deaf Women’s National Team. I was able to find information about them on social media and their own website but couldn’t find any info on the U.S. Soccer website. I’m not even sure they are part of the federation.

We know that programs are there for disabled athletes. But we don’t really know anything about them.

Equal Pay, Equal Treatment

When I did my research, I found out that the Paralympic National Team is preparing for their own World Cup this summer in Sevilla, Spain. The team plays 7-a-side, and in their group stage, they will face Iran, Finland, and Ireland. They also have the ParaPan American Games in Lima, Peru two months later. It seems like this would be important information for U.S. Soccer to publicize, yet I hadn’t heard anything about it until now.

When I expanded my search beyond U.S. Soccer, I learned that the Paralympians had their own fight for equal pay with the U.S. Olympic Committee that has been going on for at least a decade. In 2018, Olympians earned $37,500 for winning gold, $22,500 for silver, and $15,000 for bronze. By comparison, Paralympians earned $7,500 for gold, $5,250 for silver, and $3,750 for bronze.

In September, the U.S. Olympic Committee announced that it would give equal medal bonuses for both sets of athletes. This action applied retroactively to the 2018 games, giving Paralympian athletes the money that they deserve and that they need to be successful athletes.

True Equality: One Tournament

Many Paralympic athletes are calling for a merging of the Olympic and Paralympic tournaments. In 2018, NBC aired 250 hours of Paralympic coverage compared to 2,400 hours of Olympic coverage. By the time the Paralympic athletes are ready to take the stage, the international press has largely gone home.

“Other people say they are household names, but they are not,” Ryan Raghoo told VICE Sports. Raghoo is a long-pole jumper from Great Britain. “People can win multiple Paralympic gold medals and not even be known in their own country, let alone be international superstars. I don’t see why there should be any difference because you’ve got a disability; that’s segregation. I get a lot of stick for this, but when I present myself, I present myself as an Olympian. I don’t describe myself as a Paralympian.”

The separation of the Olympic and Paralympic games also causes Paralympians to be framed through familiar caricatures. The stories of their disability often overshadow their performance in the game. Frances Ryan talked about this in a 2012 article prior to the kickoff of the London Olympics.

Athletes can be inspirational. The Olympics has shown this. Yet the inspiration that greeted successful Olympians is not the same as that being attributed to their disabled counterparts. An Olympian is deemed inspirational because of what they have achieved. A Paralympian is an inspiration because, despite it all, they’ve made it this far. It is, in part, a reflection of the unspoken thought that lurks in perceptions of disability: a disabled life is a dire existence that only the most courageous could “overcome”.

A narrative springs from this. The Paralympics gets depicted less as a sporting event and more a feast of courage. Back stories are given pre-eminence. It would be naive to think that broadcasters, striving for an angle that garners interest, would ever resist dissecting how a Paralympian came to be disabled or framing it as a battle against adversity.

Respect

In the previous article of this series, I suggested that transgender and nonbinary athletes may require us to rethink how we design sports. Disabled athletes require us to do the same. As Chef Jose Andres says, “People don’t want your pity. They want your respect.”

It seems outrageous to me that we aren’t talking more about teams like the Paralympic national team and the deaf national team. U.S. Soccer remains entrenched in an ableist mentality that can be seen across all areas of American soccer. But it’s up to them to do better, and it’s up to us to demand they do so.

In a Huffington Post article, professors Eli Wolff and Mary Hums argue that the future of sport brings disabled and non-disabled athletes together.

Embracing this opportunity for athletes with and without disabilities to compete together is the wave of the future. This inclusive mindset will be open to creative thinking and not limited by tradition. It is important to maintain and value the arena and domain of disability-specific competition, yet there is also an untapped platform where athletes with and without disabilities can excel and reach their potential together in integrated sports like wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball, blind soccer, and sled hockey. These can be sports for all to play whether one has a disability or not. These are sports everyone can play.

Disabled athletes have a lot to offer the U.S. Soccer community. And U.S. Soccer has a lot left to do when it comes to inclusion and respect. U.S. Soccer needs to prove that disabled athletes are not just an opportunity to exploit an “inspiring” story. Disabled athletes are a community that U.S. Soccer has an obligation to treat equally, at the same levels as their able-bodied senior national teams. Anything short of that is a failure.

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