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An Inclusive Society, as Seen by Patrick Anderson and Miki Matheson (Part II)

Paralympians Are “Amazing Athletes,” Period

Anderson and Matheson would go on to compete and find success in the Paralympics. The environment surrounding para-athletes, however, is very different between Japan and Canada.

Anderson: In Canada, the Olympics and Paralympics are treated equally. We’re given the same sorts of opportunities, as well as the same kinds of responsibilities. The evaluation criteria and the rewards are also the same. Paralympians are judged on their performance just as much as Olympians are—after all, we’re all in the world of competition. Partly because of that, there are many amazing athletes in Canada all competing against one another and vying for medals.

Matheson: I think the Nagano Winter Paralympics, where I competed in the Ice Sledge Speed Racing event, was a very important tournament for the Japanese Paralympic community, a sort of “first step” towards the future. That was the first time that the Japanese national team had had the same uniform for Olympic athletes and Paralympic athletes.
At the time, however, not even the media—let alone the general public—knew much about the Paralympics. So every time we were interviewed, we had to start by explaining what our sport even was, and sometimes people would ask me things that made no sense to me, like “Should the wheelchair be included in the photo?” They didn’t know how to handle people that were in wheelchairs, and they didn’t seem to think of us as athletes at all. Compare that to where we are now, and I feel like so much has changed. For instance, I’ll go visit a school, and they’ll be really excited to meet me. And there are kids that have seen a wheelchair basketball game, who know about the Paralympics, and who can even name some Paralympians. This is the impact the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics has had. Though, on the other hand, there are still media outlets who interview us less as para-athletes and more from the angle of, “How did you overcome your disability?”

Anderson also performs as a musician

Anderson: In Canada, both able-bodied people and people with disabilities are given the opportunity to play wheelchair basketball, which I think is very important. It conveys the message that Paralympians and para-athletes, myself included, are not “amazing athletes with a disability” but “amazing athletes,” period. I sometimes play wheelchair basketball with able-bodied children, and I really feel that this experience gets that across more than anything I could say to them. I think Japan could make more of these kinds of efforts as well.

I’m also a musician, and I enjoy how music lets you “compete” regardless of whether or not you have a disability. For instance, Stevie Wonder and the late Ray Charles were visually impaired, but were amazing musicians regardless. Imagine if their music was only available for people with disabilities—it would be a loss for people throughout the world. It’s the same thing for para-sports. Instead of creating restrictions and limitations because some people have disabilities, we should work to acknowledge everybody’s unique talents. I think this is very important in the process of creating an inclusive society.

The panel also featured a surprise live performance by Anderson

Matheson: In my case, there was definitely a period where I was the one holding myself back. It was when I was looking for a job in Canada. I had a license to be an elementary school teacher, but in Japan, I couldn’t find a school that would hire me. I’d given up a little myself, thinking “well, you’re in a wheelchair, what do you expect?” So in Canada, I started working a job that had nothing to do with P.E. or teaching. But there, I met someone that asked me why I wasn’t teaching if that was what I actually wanted to do, who encouraged me to go after what I wanted. That’s when I realized that I’d be able to do what I wanted if society had a system that would let me do it. And that if the environment was there, there was nothing we couldn’t do.

What Needs to Be Done for a More Inclusive Society?

What do we need to do to realize a truly inclusive society? The two Paralympians told us what their experiences have taught them.

Anderson: I think society as a whole needs to be more willing to communicate with people with disabilities, and answer to the needs of the community. In Canada, we have the late Terry Fox, who attempted a cross-country run with a prosthetic leg, and Rick Hansen, who traveled across the world on his wheelchair—para-athletes who have become role models, and who have had great influence on the world. There are also para-athletes in our generation. These top para-athletes compete in the Paralympics, win medals, and get media attention, which I think helps improve accessibility and drive advocacy programs for disability rights, and change the landscape of society as a whole.

Matheson discussing the differences between Japan and Canada

Matheson: I’ve noticed the way I feel about my disability changes depending on where I am, even though I myself am obviously the same. For instance, whenever I’m in Asia, including in Japan, I’m often quite actively reminded of my disability due to how difficult it is to get around, as well as just the attitude, looks, and speech/behavior of those around me. This doesn’t happen in Canada, which means the disability isn’t something that’s inherent inside myself, but a creation of society.

In the past, I was researching where this kind of prejudice and discrimination comes from, and someone told me it was education. As someone who wanted to be a teacher, this was devastating to me. This experience led me to think that combining the Paralympics—with all its efforts towards equality and the recognition of diversity—with education, could help rid the world of discrimination and prejudice. If the kids that receive this kind of Paralympic education go on to become adults with this inclusive way of thinking, I think the services they would provide would be completely different from the services that are offered now. That’s what I hope for, and what I’m passionate about, as I go about my work every day.

If there were to be something I’d want you to change in the years leading up to 2020, I would say it’s probably your actions and way of thinking. In Canada, people often come up and ask if they can help me with something. In Japan, nobody ever speaks to me, and I don’t think they even want to, perhaps because Japanese people are shyer, or afraid of saying something offensive. Because of this, I feel an invisible wall between myself and the people of Japan. There’s still much to be done in order to create barrier-free structures, but this takes a lot of money and time. But human behavior and ways of thinking—this can be fixed with just a little knowledge and the proper understanding. People in Japan are good at being thorough and love to learn new things. I just hope that there’s action that goes along with it as well.

Anderson performed three songs, including “Take Me Home, Country Roads”

* This article was built off of the “Inclusion and Beyond: Para-sports Athletes’ Perspectives” panel held at the Embassy of Canada to Japan in Tokyo on October 17.

text by TEAM A
photo by X-1

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