In con­ver­sa­tion with a Par­a­lympian

In con­ver­sa­tion with Mcgill Par­a­lympian Sarah Me­hain

The McGill Daily - - News - Paniz Khos­roshahy The Mcgill Daily

This past sum­mer in Rio de Janeiro, Sarah Me­hain im­proved her Par­a­lympic record in fiftymeter 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.

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].

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].

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 able­bod­ied peo­ple and you’re the only one that’s dif­fer­ent – you play with Bar­bies with per­fect bod­ies, you watch Dis­ney movies with [able­bod­ied] 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.

“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.” —Sarah Me­hain Par­a­lympian

Cour­tesy of sarah me­hain

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