(Disabled) Sports

Skimming through my twitter feed, as I do before bed most evenings, I was a little disheartened to discover the following story from the local Metro Newspaper’s twitter feed, entitled: “Canada advances to World (Sledge) Hockey final.”

Why the brackets? I’m guessing it is supposed to be a joke, although I’m not exactly sure why it would be funny. At best, the individual controlling the Metro twitter feed1 felt that perhaps more people would read the story this way because the deployment of brackets helps to separate it from other tweets about “Canada” and “hockey,” of which there are many. But at the same time this delineation is exactly what makes this tweet so problematic — we still feel the need to segregate the achievement of Paralympic athletes from those of presumptively “real” athletes; athletes who aren’t disabled at all, but rather, are the pinnacle of human physical achievement. Coverage of disabled sports is often wrapped in this sort of “gold star for effort” coverage, where the subconscious objective of the article is more to celebrate an individual being an athlete despite being disabled rather than merely celebrating athletic achievement. Of course, sports journalism has always had its narratives, perhaps none more overwrought than the underdog triumph fable, but the division of “real” sports and “disabled” sports is a relatively new trope caused by sports media realizing they could no longer ignore Paralympic/Special Olympic sport (largely because of the advocacy of my two favourite Joshs–Josh Vander Vies and Josh Cassidy 2 ) while at the same time not knowing exactly how to cover these stories. After all, if it’s about disability than it’s gotta be different. Sports journalism isn’t the only culprit here, as there is always the desire to temper achievements with the addendum of disability: Stephen Hawking isn’t a scientist…he’s a disabled Scientist!

Ultimately, how we cover disabled sports, specifically this seemingly innocent tweet by the London Metro team, helps to elucidate the oft non-apparent fault lines in our acceptance of disability. We talk so much about acceptance and inclusion in Canada, yet even in covering a story we can all understand and empathize with (athletic achievement) we still must keep a healthy distance (pun intended) between “us” and “them.” Only once we are ready to grant disability access into the realm of “normal,” understanding that people truly do come in all shapes and sizes, will we finally be able to talk about sledge hockey without the addendum.

  1. Note: I’ve been contacted by the local Metro and it was, in fact, not done locally but was tweeted by someone at the national office. The headline was apparently taken from the article pushed out on the wire by the Canadian Press, also picked up by Sportsnet here sans brackets.
  2. Although note that both of these fine gentleman brand themselves on their websites with terms like “motivators” and “leader,” unlike most mainstream athletes who wrap themselves in more traditional terms around athletic performance. I’d argue here that the Joshs feel the pressure to be more than just an athlete…they must also be inspirations

How to Get Rich Quick

A recent post by Ryan over at Driving Off the Beaten Path about his experience on Para-transpo in Ottawa inspired me to repost an old article I wrote about Paratransit here in London. Make sure to check out Driving Off the Beaten Path blog!

—Originally posted April 4, 2009–

London Knights logoFor as long as I can remember, hockey has been a big part of my life. Some of my earliest memories are of playing mini-sticks with my Dad and sister in the living room, laughing and having fun while pretending to be Grant Fuhr. I was so hockey obsessed that I swore up and down throughout grade school that one day I would grow up to be the first disabled NHL goaltender. Although a lofty goal, my parents were supportive, hoping a more feasible career would catch my eye and steer me down a more realistic path.

Although eventually moving on, hanging up my pads and realizing, albeit with a deep sigh, that the Maple Leafs won’t likely offer me an entry-level contract, I still spent a vast majority of my time watching, playing, talking or thinking hockey. Although the Leafs will get another extended summer break this year, hockey fever has taken hold in around these parts as the London Knights, the local OHL team, are burning it up in the early stages of the playoffs.

Today, tickets for the 3rd Round of the playoffs finally came on sale and I woke up early to make sure I wouldn’t miss out. Because I need wheelchair accessible seats, the Knights require my tickets be purchased over the phone rather than online. Presumably this is to ensure people with disabilities are getting the seats, although there’s no validation process to ensure you actually need wheelchair access when buying the tickets. Anyway, I began dialling my cellphone as quickly as possible, hanging up the second I heard the busy signal and quickly dialling again. I figured the line would be pretty busy, reminiscent of my repeated dialings to get Leaf tickets to watch Mats Sundins’ return to Toronto earlier in the year. I was amazed at how fast I could switch between dialling, hanging up and dialling again–it was as though I had practiced the manoeuvre many times before. As the clock pushed past 30 minutes with still no luck, I was beginning to get frustrated and muttered under my breath, “Jeez, this is almost as bad as Paratransit.” That’s when I realized why I was so fast at dialling: it’s the exact same process used when attempting to book a ride on Paratransit.

Paratransit, run by the London Transit Commission (LTC), is a specialized door-to-door transportation service dedicated to individuals with disabilities, not unlike the Wheeltrans system in Toronto or Paratranspo system in Ottawa. Paratransit was created as a stop-gap solution to augment the lack of accessible bus routes in London while servicing individuals who aren’t able to wait in the cold for busses or navigate their way to the bus stops because City Council cancelled snow removal for sidewalks in the winter several years ago. In principle, the service is a good idea and an absolute necessity. The problem is that in practice this service is essentially unusable.

One of the biggest problems facing Paratransit is the booking system. In order to get a ride on Paratransit, you must call in at 7am, three days before you wish to leave your home: no earlier and no later. Unfortunately, the service does not have any sizable queue system, meaning that clients are constantly met with the same busy-signal that greeted me in my attempt to get Knights tickets. This means that not only must we dial in, over and over again, hoping desperately to get through, but which calls actually do get through is completely arbitrary, based on whether or not you happen to dial when the queue opens rather than on a first come, first serve basis. While this may not seem like a big problem, much like Leafs tickets, if you don’t get through in the first 40 minutes you are likely out of luck–all the rides for the day have been booked. For those lucky few who do manage to get through, there is no guarantee they will get a ride either. The rides are booked extremely quickly, often requiring you to settle for a pick-up time several hours before your appointment. Finally, just because you have a booking does not mean the ride will even show up, as rides are consistently 30 minutes late and, in my experience, are just as likely to not show up at all.

While there are many explanations as to why the Paratransit program is failing, like lack of funds, something that astonishes me is that the word coming from the LTC is that the system works well considering the resources they have available. When asked if there are any problems, the answer most often touted by the LTC representatives is that aside from buying more busses, there is little they can do to improve the system.

In the end, I did manage to get tickets to see the Knights play next round. Even though it took over 40 minutes to finally get through, I now have better success buying Knights tickets than I do getting a ride on Paratransit. When it’s easier to get playoff tickets for a hockey game in Canada than it is to get a ride on a daily basis for people with disabilities in London, something is terribly wrong.

By implementing a fair booking system through an automated queue system or first-come, first-serve online booking, Paratransit could immediately solve one of the most frustrating problems plaguing the system without a huge expenditure of resources, financial or otherwise.

If Paratransit rides continue to be so difficult to get, maybe I should take a lesson from those guys out front the Air Canada Centre and start scalping rides to the highest bidder. Anyone need a ride? I’ve got the hottest, most exclusive ticket in town…and a whopper of a student loan that needs to be paid!