We noticed others notice. Several people on the other side of Yonge Street had stopped, a couple were pointing, several were waving. It took a few minutes for them to come into view and when they did, they generated the same kind of excitement around them. They were four women, wearing Team Brazil tee-shirts, all pushing very sporty wheelchairs. The stretch of the street they were on had them pushing uphill, which they all did without even a hint of effort.
Brazil has owned the Pan American Games here in Toronto this year. They took an early lead in the medal count and then never looked back. Canada came in a strong but distant second. Next year Brazil hosts the Olympic games and they have, understandably, poured money, effort and time, into training athletes for those games. It showed here. They were amazing to watch.
I don't know what sport these women played, I don't know if they played as part of a team or if they competed on an individual by individual basis, it didn't matter. What mattered was that they were here for the games, their country did incredibly well, and they were our guests in a city and a country we love. As they went by, I gave them a thumbs up, and cheered their country's performance. They didn't stop, which I didn't expect them to, but they all smiled and acknowledged the recognition.
It was awesome. I felt, even though we are people living in different parts of the world and clearly have different experiences with that world, that they represent something powerful about the disability experience. I'm not suggesting the tired 'inspiration' theme, I'm suggesting their demonstration that their mastery of skill and athleticism is a result of the increasing range of choices available to people with disabilities.
Later we saw them again. This time I was following them into the mall where we do our grocery shopping. Where I turned to go to the elevator to take me down, they turned to go into a clothing store on the main level. It was funny because, though the doors have auto openers that hope, wondrously, both doors, the two sets of double doors were held open, each by one man. Each man grinning and congratulating them as they went by. I followed on their heels, I said to the first guy, "I'm clearly not the athletic type", he laughed.
Downstairs I heard several people talking about them. Now what I heard pleased me but may offend others. They were often described as "disabled athletes," and they were described that way in respectful, even awe-full, tones of voice. I don't ascribe to the "see the person not the disability" kind of crap. I prefer the "see the disability and the person" point of view. I dearly hope no one corrected the people who were excitedly talking about what they saw.
The word 'disabled' in conjunction to 'athelete' is what allows perceptions to be challenged and puts positive mental pictures into people's heads about what disability means and what it doesn't mean. It was great, no it was freaking fantastic, to hear conversation, in a public place, amongst excited strangers about disability in a positive framework. For a second it pushed out that horrid, outrageous, attitude that, "I'd rather be dead than disabled." For a second it made disability something that was part of a larger story, a story that wasn't about tragedy, a story that wasn't about charity, a story that wasn't about pity.
Those four women, I don't know if they won gold, chances are at least one of them did, but if not ... take a gold star from me. You gave me an awesome moment, in public, as a disabled man.