What the Paralympics Can Teach Us All About Limitations
I recently watched my 26 year-old special needs sister paddle two and a half kilometres down the River Wey in a homemade raft for the Guildford Lions Raft Race, which is held every year to raise money for local charities. She was on a raft with several other special needs young adults and staff from Halow, a charity which my parents founded ten years ago that supports young adults with learning difficulties. I had tears in my eyes when they crossed the finish line, an hour later than all the "normal" people, my sister soaked from falling in the river half way through.
My tears were half disbelief and half pride, but mostly they were because these humans had smashed the limitations that others (and maybe themselves) had put in place for them.
My sister can't read or write or take care of herself. She has 24-hour assisted living care. She is a spark, a live wire with a wicked sense of humour. Sometimes she flies in to rages out of frustration and my childhood had moments of sadness and frustration with these. Once she hit me with a laptop. Her zest for life is inspiring to me at times as she takes pleasure in the simple things, a coffee date, dancing to Abba. She makes me less fearful and less concerned with other people's opinions. In her company I'll dance badly on a stage in front of a room full of people.
Watching her complete this raft race - something which I would never have thought she could do - I was overcome with emotion because I was seeing in front of me a precise example of smashing limitations.
I feel this too when I watch the Paralympics. These "abnormal" humans that have pushed their limits and surpassed expectations put on them when they were born with, or acquired these disabilities.
I dislike the rhetoric of pity that some people use when talking of Paralympians, just as I dislike it when people speak similarly of those with special needs. Sometimes this form of expression can be even more damaging than cruelty and discrimination and foul language. Ignorant people who talk of cripples and spastics can be dismissed, but pity, even that which is kindly meant, can put limitations in the path of those who are even slightly different.
Watching the Paralympics, I think of the limits that I regularly narrate in my own life from the small daily ones to larger life decisions. Too shy, too complicated, not a runner, not an artist, what will people think if you fail, you will not be taken seriously if you follow this path.
Seeing physical embodiments of limitations smashed in front of my very eyes, watching my sister row down a river when she used to be terrified of water - these are inspirations and examples that I can't argue with. They bring to me a spark of fire and power that I have the ability to overcome my own limitations, if only I just try my hardest and stop listening to the unhelpful voices in my head.
I'll finish with some quotes from Amy Purdy, a Paralympic snowboarder amongst other things who lost her legs after contracting meningitis when she was 19. She won a bronze medal in Sochi in 2014 and then proceeded to get to the semi-finals of Dancing with the Stars in the US. She recently appeared on Elizabeth Gilbert's podcast Magic Lessons;
"You have to use what you have and that's always changing...
"I learnt to be ok with not being the best in the world but being the best of me
"You don't know what you're capable of until you get out there and do it.. We so often stop ourselves doing something because we're scared, we don't even allow ourselves to do it because we're scared, there's nothing stopping us but ourselves.
"It's really overcoming your own fears that's what it's all about."
Quotes taken from Amy Purdy on Magic Lessons, Episode 206.
This conversation just emphasised to me that our constraints are so often in our minds, set by society or prior failures. If her words don't inspire you to identify and challenge your own limitations, I don't know what will.