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On the ‘right’ way to be disabled

In conversation with McGill Paralympian Sarah Mehain

This past summer in Rio de Janeiro, Sarah Mehain improved her Paralympic record in fifty-meter butterfly – her main event – from a sixth to a fourth place. Since joining Swimming Canada – the national organization governing swimming and competitive swimmers – in 2008, Mehain has also placed third in International Paralympic Committee World Championships 2013 and first in Parapan American Games in Toronto last summer.

On top of that, Mehain is a member of the McGill Swimming team and a fourth year student in sustainability sciences. The Daily spoke to Mehain about her experience as a Paralympian as well as her views on invisible disability, media representation and sports activism.

McGill Daily (MD): How did you get into swimming? Did you find it to be an overall accommodating sport?
Sarah Mehain (SM): I swam from an early age but I didn’t always know about para-swimming. But then I had a coach that had previously coached a Paralympic athlete, and he got me into Paralympic swimming when I was 12. And at that point I knew that there were a lot of opportunities ahead of me, I had no idea before that. Swimming is a very big Paralympic sport in terms of the number of events and competitors and has a very good support system for the athletes. And it’s accessible to all different levels of disability. It’s a a very well-developed paralympic sport, and it’s easier to get into.

Courtesy of Sarah Mehain

MD: How does the Canadian InterUniversity Sport (CIS) system accommodate disabled athletes?
SM: In CIS, teams rank themselves against each other using their points, but there is no opportunity for disabled athletes to contribute to those points. [This system] effectively prevents [disabled athletes] from being part of varsity teams. Technically, I can compete at the [CIS] meets with the [McGill] team but there’ll be no consideration for my disability. My time will be taken flat against everybody else’s and I’ll come in last so I won’t make any points for the team. [As a result] universities don’t want to take in disabled athletes because [disabled athletes] are not going to improve the ranking of the team. So what needs to happen is to have a point system that allows disabled athletes to compete for university teams and get points. The U.S. is working on allowing a point system [like this].

“I’m not telling you I’m in the Paralympics because I want to devalue myself, I’m telling you because I’m proud to be in the Paralympics.”

MD: So how did you get into McGill swimming?
SM: I had a very hard time finding a university that would allow me to swim with the varsity team. Peter [Carpenter], head coach of McGill varsity team, had worked with Valérie Grand’Maison [gold medalist at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London] before I started working with him. So he was already in the system, he already knew about the Paralympics, and he was willing to take me in and allow me to train with the varsity team, go to their meets, have a different schedule, and train me throughout the summer at a different time.

MD: Is participating in parasports and Paralympics political to you?
SM: In a way. Because you’re representing something that isn’t just a sporting movement, it’s an activism movement. I don’t have a lot of time to be very active in disability activism, but the best way that I can represent [Paralympics] right now is by talking to people. Every time someone introduces me and says, “Hey, this is my friend Sarah, she went to the Olympics,” I say, “No, actually, I went to the Paralympics, and this is what Paralympics is if you don’t know.” A lot of people don’t know what Paralympics is. I once went out with a guy and when I told him I had competed in the Paralympics, he said, “Oh, that’s awesome, so when are you going to go to the real Olympics?” To this guy’s defense, he thought that paralympics was ‘pre-Olympics,’ it meant the level before Olympics and it was a step toward going to the Olympics. A lot of people also tell me, “Oh well, [the Paralympics] is just as good!” Like you don’t need to tell me that. I’m so, so, proud of what I’m doing, I’ve put so much work into it, you don’t have to tell me that [Paralympics] is just as good as the Olympics. It’s different from the Olympics, for sure, but in my opinion it’s different in a good way. It’s not any less than the Olympics. I’m not telling you I’m in the Paralympics because I want to devalue myself, I’m telling you because I’m proud to be in the Paralympics.

MD: How do you view the mainstream representation of disability in the media?
SM: Currently the only examples we have in our media is either the promotion of elite sports for Paralympics, or representations where a disabled person is either a villain, or lonely, never a romantic interest, or they’re evil, or they want to end their life because that’s how bad having a disability is. They would rather not exist than have a disability. This type of media representation leads people to assume that [disabled people] can’t do anything so when you can make it into university or go grocery shopping they’re surprised that you can do normal everyday tasks. They say, “Good for you,” but no, I’m just living, I’m just doing my own thing. They wouldn’t say that if it was an able-bodied person. Paralympic sport organizations though are moving away from [‘inspirational’] type of branding. Especially Swimming Canada is moving toward promoting their athletes in a way that’s similar to Olympic athletes. So you’re focusing on high performance, excellence, hard work, and all the hours that go into this rather than focusing on the fact that you’re doing it with a disability. I think it’s really good that we are moving into that direction, but it’s also important to not forget the disability, because it’s a huge and very powerful part [of the sport].

Courtesy of Sarah Mehain

MD: How have participating in Paralympics changed the way you understand your disability?
SM: If you grow up disabled, often you’re not exposed to other people with disabilities and often you’re isolated in your own experiences. You grow up surrounded by able-bodied people and you’re the only one that’s different – you play with Barbies with perfect bodies, you watch Disney movies with [able-bodied] princesses, and you have no positive examples in your childhood, in your young adult life, of people with disabilities. You think it’s just me, that’s why you don’t say anything. You keep getting the message that you should act a certain way to be disabled, be accommodating, kind, friendly, inspirational. Basically you’re objectified. As I tried to be involved in Paralympics, I saw examples of people that were doing amazing things with their lives – or not even amazing, but just normal things with their lives, like doing sports or getting married. That was the first time I was exposed to the possibility of having those things in my life.

MD: How does having an invisible disability shape your daily life?
SM: A lot of para-athletes have a very low level of disability. It’s enough that they couldn’t compete with able-bodied athletes. It’s not necessarily immediately visible so it requires a level of disclosure. The problem with disclosure is that right now, in order to get any accommodations to do something on an equal playing field, you have to disclose your disability. So if people can’t see your disability, they question it, they ask if you really have a disability, if are you really impacted, they attach a lack of authenticity to your disability. You don’t fit into the right narrative of disability because it’s not visible and you don’t fit the right narrative of [normativity] because you can’t do everything without accommodations.

MD: What do you think of accommodations system at McGill?
SM: With professors, it really depends on the person, because I’ve had professors that are really accommodating and really respect the fact that I’m doing sports. But then I’ve had profs that [required me] to write exams an entire semester late because I’d missed it for a swim meet. Overall, [accommodations] shouldn’t be seen as privileges. The students that need these resources, they deserve them, and it’s their human right, their right as students to access those. To improve, the OSD (Office for Students with Disability) could promote their resources better, and McGill could also create a standard method for dealing with accommodations with professors and for athletes.

MD: lastly, what is your best memory of Rio?
SM: When we arrived, it was incredible – the excitement that the athletes were greeted with. [In terms of] the number of people that actually came and watched, finals were sold out most nights for swimming. For the able-bodied, the Olympics, it wasn’t. What [the Paralympics organizers] did is that they made the tickets cheaper and affordable. It was incredible to have people interested to come and watch. I think people in Rio really got into the Paralympics.

* This interview has been edited for clarity and length.