It wasn’t just a day to celebrate, but also to remember; a day to look back and reflect on how far our nation had come. Several days ago marked the fiftieth anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech. On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. said “In a sense, we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men…would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable rights of “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of having a dream, where everyone would be treated as equals and be free to pursue whatever dream was theirs.
That makes what happened a few weeks ago all the more disgraceful.
Victoria Arlen is an 18-year-old athlete from Exeter, New Hampshire. Seven years ago, she contracted transverse myelitis, a neurological condition that damages nerve cell fibers in the body. She was in a coma for three years, and slowly recovered, but the illness left her paralyzed from the waist down. She had always been a swimmer and following her illness she began to swim again as a form of therapy. She took some time to adjust to swimming without the use of her legs and went on to compete in swimming events in the Paralympics in London last summer. She won four medals, including gold. She holds the world record in the 100-meter freestyle.
The IPC requested more information about her disabling condition after the London games last year so that they could put her in the correct classification system. She provided that documentation in July. The report was sent to five medical experts for their opinion. According to IPC spokesman Lucy Dominay, “All were in agreement that the report, its assessment, and its diagnosis fail to provide sufficient evidence of an eligible impairment leading to a permanent or verifiable activity limitation which is required under the IPC Swimming Classification Rules and Regulations.”
Let me rephrase that. After Ms. Arden had arrived in Montreal to compete in the Paralympics as part of Team USA this year, the International Paralympic Committee banned her from competing because they didn’t think she was disabled enough to be eligible for the Paralympics. What was the basis for their ruling? One of the reports she gave the IPC included a statement from a doctor that she “might someday walk again”.
I was outraged. Ms. Arlen has been a wheelchair user for the past seven years. I guarantee that she has been “disabled enough” to experience discrimination and that her physical condition has prevented her from doing what she wants to do on more than one occasion. I would be willing to bet that she has had to redefine some of her goals based on her reality, and make adaptations in her journey because of some things she is not capable of.
When she became paralyzed, the list of things she could not do got pretty long. She cannot climb a tree. She cannot dance the two-step, she cannot jump over a fence if she is locked out of her house.
But she can swim.
As a former (almost) Paralympic athlete, I can say with conviction that when the length of the list of what I couldn’t do got overwhelming, I poured everything I had into my training. Every lap around the track made up for every hurtful word hurled my way and every obstacle imposed on me by others. Every step toward me improving my time and my performance proved them wrong. There may have been many things that I was not capable of, but I was the best at something. That made the difference between being swallowed by my disability and standing out. I am sure Ms. Arlen can relate.
Because the Paralympic games that I was supposed to compete in were canceled six weeks before they were to take place, I can somewhat relate to what she is going through now. But when those games were canceled in 1986, many athletes missed the event. The consequences did not affect me alone. That is the part I can’t imagine.
I have said for many years that I would not trade the experiences that I have had as a wheelchair user for the ability to walk. Everything I have been through from the ugly to the incredible has helped to shape who I am. But there is a distinct difference between Ms. Arlen’s situation and mine. She has been paralyzed for seven years. I have never known anything different than the situation that I am currently in.
I am pretty sure Ms. Arlen has not been faking her disability for years so that she could win Paralympic medals. She set a record at the Paralympic trials in 2012 and was a runner-up for the “Excellence in Sports Yearly (ESBY)’s Best Female Athlete with a Disability award this year.
She just might be willing to trade it all if she “could someday walk again.” But she has not been paralyzed by the thought. She has done her best with her situation, and moved forward; making the most of the abilities she has been blessed with.
Let’s be clear about one other thing. Even if Ms. Arlen could eventually walk again, it is not going to happen overnight. She might regain some movement and function after years of physical therapy if that were her main focus. However, at the time of the Paralympic games, she was paralyzed. That fact alone should have secured her eligibility to compete.
According to her website, Ms. Arlen says “not having the use of my legs has made things challenging, but what I have gone through has taught me perseverance and patience. Obstacles are obstacles whether it’s a wheelchair or any other circumstance that stands between you and your dream.”
The story has made international headlines, and support for Ms. Arlen has come from her family, friends, and total strangers. Even New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassen weighed in. In a letter to the IPC she wrote:
Denying Victoria the opportunity to compete in an event for which she has trained diligently, and at the last possible moment, is unconscionable and patently unfair, Victoria is precisely the type of athlete the International Paralympic Committee should be working to promote and support, a shining example that a world of opportunity exists for all those living with a disability.
Moreover, the basis for ruling Victoria ineligible – the possibility that she might one day be able to resume use of her legs – is nothing short of disgraceful, undermining the very values of courage, inspiration, determination and equality that the International Paralympic Committee aims to promote.
Well said, Governor. I completely agree.
In the days following the announcement, Ms. Arlen took some time away to be with her family and her boyfriend. She says that she has the utmost respect for the IPC, she just doesn’t want this to happen to anyone else. A few weeks later in an interview she said that at first she was devastated; she put her heart and soul into her training and to have it taken away so quickly was difficult. But, after stepping back, she realized that it was just a swim meet, and she wanted to move on.
My hunch is that she will be just fine. Other parts of Ms. Arlen’s life include being an aspiring actress, model, and motivational speaker. In my opinion, her positive attitude will open many doors for her.
But they should have let her swim. They should have let her keep her dream.
Martin Luther King Jr. would have been sorely disappointed!