A great story appeared in the NY Times this week about a swimmer with multiple disabilities and his journey to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Paralympics.
Kendall Bailey qualified for the Paralympics in the 100 meter breaststroke. As an athlete with cerebral palsy, he qualified within a classification of athletes with similar disabilities. He also has Klinefelter's Syndrome, autism, and mental retardation. Overall I thought the tone of the story was great. It's not just the story of him swimming, it's also the story of how the US Paralympic Committee tried to disqualify him because of his multiple other disabilities, not once but twice!
In a nutshell, the Paralympics has many categories of ability levels and different disabilities. I believe that an athlete must qualify within their own classification or a more-able classification. The Paralympics used to have a classification for athletes with intellectual disabilities, but after the 2000 Spanish basketball team was discovered to consist mostly of non-disabled athletes, that classification was eliminated.
Back to Bailey's story. Initially, another country protested and had Bailey reclassified as "only intellectually disabled" and therefore ineligible for the Paralympics. He is a talented athlete but he isn't yet able to advocate for himself on this level. His mother appealed that decision and had him reclassified as a physically disabled athlete. All was well, and Bailey qualified for the Summer Games.
Several weeks later, Bailey's mother found out that the US Paralympics committee had made a formal protest to the International Paralympic Committee, stating that Bailey had an intellectual disability, and "the intellectual disability classification for swimming (S14) is not presently recognized by the IPC; nor is an intellectually disabled swimmer eligible to compete under the IPC Swimming Functional Classification System." The complaint stated he had been incorrectly classified and he should be disqualified from the Paralympics. The claim was ridiculous, but Bailey's mother had to spend $25,000 in legal fees to get it resolved! Said his mother about the issues he has faced,
Just because he has other issues, he’s been looked at in a whole different way that hasn’t been fair,” she said. “He’s been singled out and isolated because of his autism, because of his intellectual disability. If Kendall wasn’t autistic, would any of this have happened? Absolutely not.The story really highlights the need for self-advocacy and advocacy of parents and friends. Without someone to fight for his rights, Bailey wouldn't be going to Beijing this summer. The article also took a balanced look at how Kendall struggled growing up and playing every sport he tried until he learned to swim and found his niche. Best of luck on Team USA, Kendall!
Image: A young man in a swimming pool leans against the side and squints into the sun. He wears a swim cap and goggles, and is surrounded by sports drinks and swim training equipment.