Paralympic Athletes and Life #WithoutLimits

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Team USA Paralympics participate in a welcome ceremony in South Korea.
Team USA Paralympics participate in a welcome ceremony in South Korea. (USA Paralympics photo)

Paralympic Athletes and Life #WithoutLimits

A record number of 670 athletes will participate in the 2018 Paralympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea this month. Paralympians will participate in over 80 medal events across six different sports, showing how they live everyday #WithoutLimits.

Since 2002, promoting the rights of people with disabilities has been a pillar of the U.S. Department of State’s Sports Diplomacy division. Through exchanges of athletes, coaches, sports administrators, and media, these programs highlight the ways adaptive sports empower these communities and encourage policy-makers to establish the infrastructure needed to advance disability rights.

For example, one of the Sports Diplomacy division’s International Sports Programming Initiative (ISPI) programs this year will include a team of American athletes and coaches who will travel to South Korea during the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games. While in Pyeongchang, they will conduct a training program for their counterparts with disabilities in the sports of alpine skiing and snowboarding.

Moreover, the Sports Diplomacy division sponsors a five-week Sport for Community mentorship program on disability rights under its Global Sports Mentoring Program umbrella, an annual exchange that matches international disability rights professionals working in sports with American executives of major adaptive sports organizations. Participants explore the physical, attitudinal, and institutional barriers that people with disabilities face, and develop action plans to combat these challenges when they return to their home countries. These plans achieve an 83 percent rate of implementation, which then sustains and multiplies the exchange programs’ impact for foreign audiences. 

Each year the Sports Diplomacy division also supports many Sports Envoy and Visitor exchange programs aim to share U.S. training, policy, and civil society best practices for disability rights through sports. Partnering with the U.S. Paralympic Committee and leading adaptive sports athletes and coaches, the Envoys attract public interest and showcase their skills and knowledge to countries where access and opportunities for the disabled communities are limited. Inbound visitors benefit from clinical session, social interactions with a broad spectrum of American society, and important contacts with U.S. organizations for future assistance.

Several years ago, the U.S. Department of State’s Sports Diplomacy division, in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, sponsored an exchange program that brought a group of female athletes, trainers, and coaches to Washington, D.C. The group participated in a Martial Arts program and discussed many different ways that sports positively contribute to women’s empowerment. In particular, Tajik athletes said that engagement in sports builds confidence and increases physical strength. The group also discussed Disability Rights and Gender-Based Violence in the context of sports, as part of State Department’s interdisciplinary approach to U.S. foreign policy. 

The Department of State recognizes the challenges and goals of people with disabilities often progress hand-in-hand with gender equality. Similarly, sports provide a relatable, highly visible stage upon which athletes’ performances chip away at negative stereotypes that would otherwise diminish their worth. 

According to the International Paralympic Committee, the number of female athletes participating in the Winter Paralympic Games increased 44 percent since 2012. As a result, Sports Diplomacy programs often promote both of these issues equally, believing them to be keys to advancing global security, stability, and prosperity.

Both on and off the field, Paralympic athletes advocate for the rights, and full and equal inclusion of persons with disabilities. These elite athletes often attribute their success to a sense of self-confidence and empowerment gained by participating in sport. Through the use of people-to-people diplomacy and interdisciplinary engagement strategies, the Department of State incorporates Disability Rights and Inclusion department wide. The Paralympics serve as a catalyst to continue this discussion that disability rights are human rights.

About the Author: Ashley Faler serves in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.

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