A Paralympian reflects on sports and disability in a time of global illness.

When we spoke to Lacey Henderson back on March 19, the Paralympics were still supposedly going to be held on schedule in August 2020. She no longer had a place to train, though—her regular training facility had closed a few days earlier—and all the spring qualifying meets had been called off. Yet the IPC and USOPC still expected Henderson and thousands of other adaptive athletes from around the world to continue preparing for competition on the global stage.

Henderson found it absurd and funny and annoying and infuriating. “I’m driving around town in my little Prius trying to find a track that’s still open,” she told us. “I’ve got a rake and a shovel in the back so I can turn over the sand pits.” (Her event is the long jump.)

Since the Paralympics were subsequently postponed to 2021, our conversation took place in a context that no longer exists. But a lot of Henderson’s musings from that day are still on point.  If anything, they’re more relevant now than they were back on March 19, when many businesses were still open and only a few hundred Americans had died from COVID-19. Everything our country has been through since then deepens the resonance of her reflections.

Here’s a condensed version of that interview. To read more about Lacey Henderson, see our feature in the March/April edition of Amplitude.

Before the virus threw everything into disarray, it seemed as though the Paralympics were on a trajectory to break through in the U.S.to cross over and penetrate the culture’s awareness to a greater degree than ever. In light of the pandemic, can that still happen?
This disease is as much of a cultural impact as any sport is. I think it’s important, especially coming from the world of disability, that we see how everything plays into everything else all the time. We always think sport is separate from daily life, and disability is separate from sport, but they’re all intertwined. Coming from the disabled world, it takes a long time to learn to be adaptable. You learn to adjust no matter the circumstances. Speaking as an athlete, you’re constantly forced to adapt there as well, whether to an injury or to an entire global crisis. So we’re all just trying to survive at this point.

Ultimately this whole coronavirus will subside. It will be contained, and life will go on like it used to. Probably a little different—hopefully a little different, to be honest. But it forces you to realize how unimportant sports is. People’s lives are at stake. It’s hard, because this is my job and my life, but is it more important than stopping the spread of disease? It’s not, and I think that’s a really sobering thing. We’re all forced to grow. That’s the ironic twist of athletics in and of itself, you’re constantly learning about yourself and you’re constantly having to grow and change and adapt. And this is just another version of it, but like in a really extreme way.

Is there something about this moment where the ability to adapt, the ability to grow, could actually change the way amputees and people with other disabilities are perceived?
I really hope so. When coronavirus was still funny—when we could still make jokes about it—I thought it was kind of refreshing to see that everybody has to live like either they’re really sick, or somebody they love is really sick. Because for a lot of us, we come from a world where this is our normal. So it really is kind of funny to see the broad response to being forced to stay at home and do nothing. People are like “Oh that’s too hard, I can’t do it.”

If we are given a gift out of all of this, it will be the gift of perspective. It can be a shock to find out that you’re not the center of the universe, and that the world wasn’t designed for you—that you have to change yourself to adapt to the environment. A lot of people haven’t had the opportunity for that to come across their lives. And now we’re all in it together. That’s my hope, is that out of all of this we all realize that it’s not always about us.

And that would be a gift if that were one of the outcomes when this is all over with.
I always make this joke about disability: We’ve had bad marketing for so long. It’s not sexy, it’s not cool, it’s not exciting. We have terrible branding. And I think that’s where Paralympics has evolved in a way that makes it more interesting for people wanting to get to know about it. Because with Paralympic athletes, everybody comes with a story. Everybody comes with just these insane examples of what the human spirit is capable of. I think that’s why [the Paralympics] are so important. I think disability has a really unique privilege of being able to transcend race, gender, and all these things to be accessible even to people who aren’t part of the community. That’s the crazy thing about disability: anyone can become a member of that group at any time in your life.

So as you look beyond your athletic career, will your role be to improve the branding and marketing of disability? Is that a life calling?
Yeah, sure. I would love to be the new director of marketing for disability. I would love that title. I remember facing my amputation. My family had never been around people with disabilities. We didn’t know what that looked like. And then I refused to be considered disabled because the assumption about disability is that you’re weak and vulnerable, almost dependent on society. So I was a disability denier for a really long time. And then I realized you don’t surrender anything when you’re disabled.

I think that’s so important to understand in times of global panic. If there’s one lesson that we’re learning about coronavirus, it’s that anyone can get sick. Anyone can become disabled. So this may even end up increasing people’s acceptance of disability more than the Paralympics.


More insights about the Paralympics and the pandemic:
* Coronavirus: What Amputees Know