A Look Back on the Tokyo Paralympics

Blog Paralympics

It’s been over a week since Paralympic athletes departed Tokyo, yet we’re still catching our collective breath after witnessing the electrifying and awe-inspiring performances of Paralympic athletes in this year’s Paralympic Games.

If you watched the games for the first time, or if you weren’t aware of the games’ fascinating history, read on…

The first Paralympic games were held on July 28, 1948, about 35 miles northwest of London. The games took place on the same day as the 1948 Olympics opened in London. According to the International Paralympic Committee, “the competition was first introduced by Sir Ludwig Guttmann, an English neurosurgeon, at his Stoke Mandeville Games for World War II veterans with spinal cord-related injuries. Later, other disability groups also established their own international sports organizations, which arranged various competitions.”

At the end of the 20th century, the Paralympic games, which had grown by leaps and bounds, became a biannual (summer and winter) event like the Olympics and took place every four years shortly after the Olympics games concluded.

Today’s Paralympics include athletes representing “six different disability groups—amputee, cerebral palsy, visual impairment, spinal cord injuries, intellectual disability, and ‘les autres’ (athletes whose disability does not fit into one of the other categories, including dwarfism),” says Brittanica.com.

These athletes compete in many of the same sports that are part of the Olympics. For example, the Paralympics include Alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, and biathlon at the winter games and cycling, archery, and swimming for the summer games. Sports such as basketball, tennis and rugby are played in wheelchairs. Goalball, a sport for visually impaired athletes, and boccia, which is like bocce or lawn bowling, can only be seen at the Paralympics.

This year, the Paralympics included two new sports – Badminton and Taekwondo.

Highlights of this year’s games

China was the top winner of the 2020 games. For the fifth consecutive games, China came away with 96 gold medals and 207 total medals. The runner-up for the 2021 games was Great Britain, which came in second for the ninth consecutive time, winning 41 gold medals and total of 124 medals. In third place was the United States, the winner of 37 golds and 104 total medals. Finally, The Russian Paralympic Committee was in fourth place, with 36 golds and 118 total medals.

Athletic triumphs

There are too many triumphs to mention in a single blog post, but here are some highlights of the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.

  • The first gold medal of the 2020 Paralympics was won by Australian cyclist Paige Greco, 24, who lives with cerebral palsy. Greco won gold for the C1-3 3,000m individual pursuit, with a time of 3:50.815. She set a new world record!
  • Swimmer Suzuki Takayuki of Japan won the host country’s first gold medal with a time of 1:21:58 in the men’s 100m freestyle – S4.
  • Afghanistan-born Abbas Karimi, a swimmer on the Refugee Paralympic team, made the final of the men’s 50m butterfly S5 event. Karimi finished third with a time of 36.36 and qualified for the men’s 50m butterfly S5 final. Though he finished last, this was a significant accomplishment.
  • Italian fencer Bebe Vio, who lost both legs below the knee and both arms below the elbows due to meningitis, defeated PR (People’s Republic of) China’s Zhou Jingjing for the second time. The 24-year-old athlete scored 15-8 in the gold medal match in individual foil. Vio also defeated Jingjing in 2016 in the Rio Games.
  • PR China’s Zhao Shuai, 26, won his third consecutive Paralympic gold in the men’s table tennis singles 8. Shuai lost his arm when it was amputated after a car accident at 4 years old. Shuai beat Ukraine’s Viktor Didukh 3-1 in the final and he also won a gold medal in the men’s table tennis team event.
  • Cyclist Oksana Masters, 32, won gold in the U.S. women’s cycling H4-5 Time Trial. Masters is also a champion cross-country skier, having won two golds at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Paralympic Games. Masters’ legs were injured by in-utero radiation poisoning from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident.
  • Markus Rehm of Germany is known as the “Blade Jumper” because of his amazing long jump ability. At the 2021 games, Rehm won gold for his 8.18m jump. The winning jump is the third consecutive Paralympic victory for the 33-year-old athlete who uses a leg prosthesis and won gold in the 4x100m relay at Rio.
  • Cyclist, Sarah Storey, 43, of Great Britain won her 17th gold medal after winning the cycling C4-5 road race with a time of 2:21:51. Storey was born with a nonfunctioning left hand. The 2021 games marked her eighth Paralympic Games and her fourth time competing as a cyclist. Previously Storey, whose first Paralympics was at age 14 in Barcelona, was a Paralympic swimmer. She switched to cycling after a severe ear infection kept her out of the pool.
  • Lisa Gjessing of Denmark, already a four-time world champion and three-time European champion, became a Paralympic champion in taekwondo. Gjessing, 43, was originally part of Denmark’s able-bodied taekwondo squad but switched to para taekwondo in 2012 after she lost her left lower arm to cancer. This was the first time that taekwondo was included as a Paralympic sport and Gjessing won her gold with a final score of 32-14.

If you missed the games, you can still catch highlights here.

Stylish Back-to-School Shoes Accessible to All

Blog.Stylish Back-to-School Shoes

Back-to-school shoe shopping–it’s a fall ritual for many American families. Now that the fashion industry has finally begun to recognize that individuals with disabilities make up a sizable portion of the general population, more and more companies are designing apparel to meet their needs. Just-in-time for the upcoming school year, shoe designer Steve Madden has created a new line of kids shoes with features that make it easier for children with disabilities to find fashionable footwear.

According to Disability Scoop, “for its fall collection, the company said that six of its ‘hottest kids styles’ have been tweaked with features like extra-long Velcro, zippers with tabs, elastic laces, removable insoles and outsoles and wider widths in order to accommodate a variety of needs.”

Danielle McCoy, Steve Madden’s director of corporate development and investor relations says the company has been working on its new adaptive footwear line for children since 2019. That year, members of the Steve Madden Kids Team attended the Runway of Dreams fashion show where they spoke to children with disabilities who shared their desires to have shoes that resembled the ones their classmates wore. The children said it was frustrating that fashionable footwear was generally inaccessible to them. As McCoy told Disability Scoop, “it became clear that Steve Madden had an opportunity not only to fill a sizeable gap in the marketplace, but also to create a world where people with disabilities had the same opportunities to express themselves through fashion.”

Steve Madden, which collaborates with online retailer Zappos, joins companies including Nike, Ugg, Stride Rite and Billy Footwear that also sell shoes designed especially for children with disabilities. In addition, says website The Mighty, some shoes not targeted for kids in the disability community may also work for your child. For example, Converse Chuck Taylor All Star Toddler High Top Shoes, has “a quick fasten strap that makes the shoes easier for putting on. It also runs a half size larger, allowing room to accommodate AFOs [Ankle Foot Orthosis].”

Likewise, Hook and Loop 680v5 Shoes from New Balance, TSUKIHOSHI Kids Neko shoes and Saucony Kids S-Velocer call this program has A/C shoes are good choice for young children who wear braces, says The Mighty. Additionally, “Hatchbacks Freestyle Kids are orthopedic shoes, specifically designed to work with AFOs.”

Back to school shopping and preparing for the start of the school year can be challenging. Hopefully, the information in today’s blog post will make getting ready a little easier.

New Reality Show: “Born For Business”

Blog: New Reality Show

Searching for a watch-worthy reality show? We’ve got just the ticket. “Born For Business,” a new documentary series by Bunim/Murray Productions, the creators of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” and “Born This Way,” premieres on NBCUniversal’s streaming service Peacock and CRAVE on August 23. “Born For Business” is also presented by Shopify Studios, a comprehensive commerce platform that helps users to start, run, and grow a business.

The 10- episode show features four entrepreneurs with disabilities trying to run their small businesses amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. They are:

  • Qiana Allen, owner of Culture’s Closet, one of the nation’s most successful clothing stores for plus-sized women. Qiana has lupus but she doesn’t let that slow her down. Allen told RespectAbility, a disability advocacy nonprofit, “Culture’s Closet is about more than fashion. ‘We teach plus-sized women how to love themselves.’” Allen said she chose to appear on the show and to share her personal story because “she recognized how important it is to show people with disabilities and plus-size women in ways that they are not often typically seen.  She saw “Born For Business” as the perfect opportunity to do just that.”
  • Collette Divitto, founder of Collettey’s Cookies, who lives with Down syndrome. After Divitto graduated from college, she was unable to find a company that would hire her. A talented baker, Divitto decided to start her own company. What’s more, she hires other people with disabilities to work in the business. According to Disability Scoop, so far, she has sold over 300,000 cookies!
  • Chris Triebes, who lives with spinal muscular atrophy and runs a concert production company, two concert venues and a music festival ticketing service. Triebes told RespectAbility he wanted to share his story on “Born For Business” because of “the lack of representation of people with disabilities in media … especially when it comes to portraying stories of proactive business owners making their own opportunities and succeeding.” Triebes, a single father, “laments the often-repeated tropes of pitied people with disabilities who are painted as helpless or unresourceful.”
  • Lexi Zanghi, who has a debilitating anxiety disorder, launched a designer clothing business called Always Reason that recently opened its first brick and mortar location on Long Island, N.Y. Zanghi chose her business’s name after the old saying “Everything happens for a reason.”

Jonathan Murray of Bunim/Murray Productions told RespectAbility he was compelled to create the series because “for too long, people with disabilities have been shut out of the workplace. With ‘Born For Business,’ we are showing how people with disabilities have long been using entrepreneurship to create an economic livelihood for themselves.”

Be Ready Should an Emergency Arise

Between the pandemic and an avalanche of natural disasters, the past year and a half has reminded all of us about the importance of emergency preparedness. For older adults and people with disabilities, it’s even more critical to be ready should disaster strike.

For example, those with mobility challenges face greater risk when a disaster such as a hurricane or fire demands that they vacate their homes quickly. In addition, during natural disasters or emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic, their ability to obtain food, medicine, personal assistance and medical care may be compromised. How can people with disabilities keep themselves safe?

Stay aware

  • Ready.gov recommends individuals with disabilities stay abreast of any weather disasters forecasted in their areas. “Keep a NOAA Weather Radio tuned to your local emergency station and monitor TV and radio. Follow mobile alerts and warnings about severe weather in your area.”
  • Download the FEMA app to receive “real-time alerts from the National Weather Service for up to five locations nationwide.”

Have a plan

  • Ready.gov suggests creating a support network of individuals willing to help and keep in touch with you in case of an emergency. These may be family members, friends or people at your school, workplace or volunteer job. Keep their contact information in a safe and waterproof place.
  • Consider all your day-to-day needs such as medication; food supply; accessible transportation; medical equipment; communication devices; and access to medical facilities and determine how you will get these needs fulfilled should an emergency occur.
  • If communication is an issue for you, prepare “laminated pictograms and keep Braille/text communication cards, if used, for two-way communication,” Ready.gov recommends.
  • Don’t forget your pets. If you need to evacuate, take your furry friend with you, but be aware that you may not be able to take him or her to an emergency shelter. Enlist the help of a family member friend or veterinary office that can take care of your pet while you’re out of your home.

Create an emergency kit that includes:

  • Three-day supply of food and water
  • Portable electric radio or TV with extra batteries
  • Flashlight with extra batteries
  • First-aid kit
  • Toiletries
  • Sanitation items such as toilet paper, wipes and hand sanitizer
  • Clothing and blankets
  • Copies of all identification documents and credit cards

Homeowners’ insurance company Bankrate recommends seniors and individuals with disabilities take certain precautions to ensure that their cars are properly outfitted in case they need to leave their homes immediately:

  • Purchase a siren alarm. “Compatible with both your home and vehicle, a siren alert is an easy way to call for help in an emergency, especially for those drivers with hearing loss,” writes Lena Borrelli for Bankrate.
  • Install assist bar or strap. Make sure your car is a sturdy assist bar or strap so that you can get in and out of the car in a hurry, says Bankrate.
  • Invest in safety features. If you’re in the market for a new or used car, you might be surprised to learn about the many new safety features that are standard in today’s automobiles. Look for cars with features such as hands-free navigation, lane keeping assistance, pedestrian detection, and forward collision warning, says Bankrate. These features can make all the difference, especially when the driver is reacting to the stress of an emergency.

Enabling Devices hopes that this blog post gets readers thinking about how to keep themselves safe in the event of an emergency. For more information and safety tips please visit ready.gov, RedCross.org, CDC.org and bankrate.com.

Artificial Intelligence Helps Non-Verbal Man to Communicate

Blog: Artificial Intelligence

In recent years, augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices have done wonders to improve the lives of individuals with conditions such as autism, cerebral palsy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), strokes and other brain injuries that make it difficult or impossible to speak. You can find many of these devices for sale at enablingdevices.com.

But scientists and technologists aren’t resting on their laurels. Instead, they are continually seeking new ways to help people communicate. Last week, the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a University of California, San Francisco study that used a new technology known as speech neuroprosthesis to help a paralyzed man who is nonverbal to communicate more effectively.

The 38-year-old man, nicknamed Pancho, was paralyzed in 2003 after a stroke he suffered following a serious car accident. He has not spoken since.

According to New York Times reporter Pam Belluck, the process worked like this: “The team implanted a rectangular sheet of 128 electrodes, designed to detect signals from speech-related sensory and motor processes linked to the mouth, lips, jaw, tongue and larynx. In 50 sessions over 81 weeks, they connected the implant to a computer by a cable attached to a port in Pancho’s head, and asked him to try to say words from a list of 50 common ones he helped suggest, including “hungry,” “music” and “computer.” As he did, electrodes transmitted signals through a form of artificial intelligence that tried to recognize the intended words.”

Then the recognized words appeared on his computer screen.

Pancho’s first sentence using the neuroprosthetic was “My family is outside.”

Neuroprosthesis isn’t the only new technology that uses brain signals to give people with disabilities tools to overcome their limitations. For example, scientists have discovered a way for people with artificial arms to use brain signals to control them. When the person thinks about moving his or her arm to pick something up or to shake someone’s hand, the thought sends brain signals through a computer to the prosthetic which is then able to put the individual’s thought into action. Dr. Chang’s work on the speech neuroprosthesis process was informed in part by earlier discoveries such as this.

While speech neuroprosphesis methodology is far from perfect — during Pancho’s test, the algorhythm correctly displayed the word he was trying to say approximately half of the time —  the process as well as other artificial intelligence-based discoveries, offer tremendous promise for people with a range of disabilities.

“Most of us take for granted how easily we communicate through speech,” Dr. Chang told the Associated Press. ‘It’s exciting to think we’re at the very beginning of a new chapter, a new field to ease the devastation of patients who lost that ability.”

Birdwatching is for Everybody and Every Body

Blog: Birdwatching

“There is an unreasonable joy to be had from the observation of small birds going about their bright, oblivious business.”
Grant Hutchison, The Complete Lachlan

Birdwatching is a deeply satisfying pursuit in any season and summertime is no exception. But if you use a wheelchair, are blind or deaf, have a chronic illness or are neurodivergent, you may have concerns about negotiating forests, parks and trails independently. That’s where Birdability comes in.

A nonprofit founded by retired English teacher, wheelchair user and avid birdwatcher Virginia Rose, Birdability’s mission is to make birding accessible to everybody and every body.

Rose has been using a wheelchair since she was fourteen years old when a horseback riding accident resulted in a spinal cord injury. Seventeen years ago, Rose discovered birdwatching and fell in love with it. She wanted other people with mobility challenges to enjoy the emotional and physical benefits of her new hobby. Yet, she knew that many trails were inaccessible, particularly for disabled birdwatchers who prefer to go out on their own, something Rose believes all birders should be able to do.

“What I want to achieve is for people to be able to bird independently,” Rose told Matt Mendenhall of BirdWatching Daily magazine. “The beauty to me of being all by yourself on a trail is just magnificent. I think it’s really important for people to be able to be unattended on a trail in the forest.”

To raise awareness about the need for accessible trails, Rose held a solo Audubon “Birdathon” for herself in 2018. Birdathons are usually competitive events that draw large groups of people, but Rose had never attended one of them because she didn’t want to slow the group because of her mobility challenges. She also didn’t want to be rushed. When news outlets got wind of the solo “Birdathon,” they were intrigued. Media coverage brought Rose to the attention of two map creators who helped her design a geographic information system where people with disabilities can obtain real-time reports about the accessibility of various parks and trails. The map can be found on the Birdability website.

Since founding Birdability, Rose, Birdability staff and members of the public have rated at least 500 locations based on terrain as well as access to parking, restrooms and more. Birders with disabilities are encouraged to submit reviews about birding locations they have visited so that other disabled birdwatchers know which locations are fully accessible.

As Abigail Krump, one of the map creators and a person with mobility challenges told Sierra magazine, “A trail that has a steep incline or that has many tripping hazards, those aren’t just hindrances. They can cause physical harm. Most able-bodied humans don’t think about how these small things can be detrimental to someone else’s health. That’s the beauty of the Birdability map; it returns power to the actual user so that they may make informed decisions before they arrive at a trailhead or park. As soon as a user uploads their Birdability site review, it’s live on the site. It’s empowering.”

In addition to its GIS map, the website includes guidance documents that help individuals and groups understand how to evaluate sites for accessibility, provide information about adaptive birdwatching equipment and give suggestions on how to plan inclusive birdwatching festivals.

In October 2020, Birdability coordinated the first Birdability Week to raise awareness about accessible birdwatching and to encourage more people with disabilities to try it. Writes Mendenhall in BirdWatching: “Rose stresses that she is not only advocating for people who use wheelchairs, crutches, or other assistive devices. ‘We are all temporarily able-bodied,’ she says. Everyone’s body, even if they don’t suffer a severe injury like Rose did, will slow down as they age, and so when accessibility is improved at outdoor spaces, everyone benefits.”

Zoom 12-Step Groups Make Meetings Accessible to All

Blog: Disability and Substance Abuse 2

Disability and substance abuse. It’s a lethal yet all too common combination. According to addiction centers.com, “persons with disabilities are substantially more likely to suffer from substance use disorders than the general population, and they are also less likely to receive treatment for them. In the United States, 54 million people experience some form of a disability, of which roughly 9% (a total of 4.7 million adults) have both a substance use disorder and a co-existing disability.” Those with intellectual disabilities have some of the highest levels of addiction with approximately 9% to 26% suffering from addiction disorders.

There are many reasons why people with disabilities are more likely than others to become addicted to drugs and alcohol. One reason is that individuals with physical disabilities are more likely to be prescribed pain medications such as opioids, which are highly addictive. When opioids become too expensive or prescriptions run out, people may turn to less expensive street drugs such as heroin to feed their addictions.

Individuals with disabilities also tend to be more isolated from their peers; experience higher rates of depressive and anxiety disorders; and face significantly higher rates of unemployment. These conditions frequently lead to self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.

Many believe that drug and alcohol dependence disorders are best treated by regular attendance at meetings held by self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. These groups (fellowships) typically hold meetings in local churches, community centers and schools. When the pandemic started, most fellowships were forced to discontinue in-person meetings and pivoted to online meetings. It was a difficult transition, but many believe it was a successful one.

While some people missed the intimacy of in-person meetings, others appreciated the access that virtual meetings afforded. “Now, you can bring meetings into your home,” said Jessica W., AA accessibility chair for District 29 of Baltimore, Maryland. In her role, Jessica is responsible for making sure that recovering alcoholics in her district have whatever they need to make participation in AA possible.

During the pandemic, Jessica discovered that virtual meetings had many advantages for those who are elderly or disabled. “Some needs [of older and disabled] adults are different,” she says. “It’s harder getting out to meetings. Some may have visual or hearing impairment; some live in assisted living facilities where they have no way to get to meetings.”

Virtual meetings make it possible for people without transportation and those who are homebound because of chronic health issues to access meetings, she says. In addition, they enable individuals with visual or hearing impairment to make use of accessibility features such as screen readers and closed captioning. Finally, holding 12-step meetings online make it possible for those in recovery from substance abuse to access 12-step meetings all over the world at all hours of the day or night.

Now that many of us have been vaccinated, some meetings are returning to an in-person format. Yet, based on the positive aspects of virtual meetings, most experts expect that many 12-step groups will continue to be held over Zoom.

“The overwhelming and rapid transition to virtual 12-step formats has proved to be a reliable means for individuals to stay connected and stay sober,” write Lee Holley and Breslyn McCrory, for PsychologyToday.com. “Virtual meetings may prove to be a mainstay in recovery programs even after the COVID-19 pandemic passes. Hybrid meetings are becoming more common, so people can access the same meeting both in-person or virtually.”

Those who would like to try online meetings but are uncomfortable with technology can request a “tech buddy” through their fellowship’s accessibility committee,” says Jessica. Meanwhile, if you have a disability but still prefer to attend in-person meetings, be aware that many fellowships have accessibility committees dedicated to ensuring that recovery from drug and alcohol dependence help is available to all.

The AA Accessibility Workbook, published by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. in 2019, provides detailed information on how fellowships everywhere can make participation in AA [and other 12-step programs] accessible to everyone who needs them. AA provides literature in Braille, American Sign Language (ASL), and easy-to-read pamphlets in English, as well as in other languages, in regular and large print. Additionally, the accessibility chair can help recovering alcoholics to find meetings that are wheelchair accessible.

“If you need an ASL interpreter to take part in a meeting, you can contact me and I will arrange for an interpreter,” says Jessica. “A lot of recovery comes down to knowing you’re not alone. Other people have been there and made it to the other side.”

Fruitful Employment

Blog. Fruitful Employment

It’s not news that people with disabilities encounter significant obstacles in their attempts to find employment. Increasingly, parents of young adults with disabilities are finding ways to create vocational opportunities for their children by starting their own businesses and hiring their children and others with disabilities. Through these enterprises, individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities gain valuable work experience while also being gainfully employed in an area where they have interest.

In January 2021, Malinda Dawson-Cook started Paige’s Pantry, a nonprofit based in North County, San Diego, where her daughter Paige, a 19-year-old teen with autism and a love of fruit picking and gardening, is now employed. Paige’s Pantry provides produce to food insecure families in the North County area while it also trains young adults on the autism spectrum.

Paige, who is mostly nonverbal, has been a student at TERI Inc.’s The Country School in San Marcos, since she was 12. The school focuses on social and vocational training rather than academics and Paige has made good progress there. Her favorite activity at school is tending raised garden beds at a group home affiliated with the school.

As Paige’s teacher, Meghan Hoppes told Pam Kragen of the San Diego Union-Tribune she was impressed with Paige’s focus and work ethic. “Paige is really industrious,” Hoppes said. “She likes to work, she works hard and when she completes a task, she moves on to the next one. She’s a take-charge sort of person.”

But when the pandemic hit, Paige’s gardening and socialization training were interrupted. So, Hoppes, an Escondito, California, resident, invited Paige and her mother to come to her house to pick fruit from her orange, lemon and grapefruit trees. When Dawson-Cook saw her daughter’s speed and focus, she knew agriculture was an interest worth nurturing.

So Paige and her mother began delivering fruit from Hoppes’ garden, along with fruit recipes typed up by Paige, to school staffers on a weekly basis. Quickly, demand for their fruit deliveries expanded to a local church that provides food to elderly and hungry community members.

“Once the local fruit trees were exhausted, Dalton-Cook began reaching out to new groups that could donate surplus produce, including backyard vegetable gardeners, the Escondido zero-waste group More than Apples… and local commercial growers like Yasukochi Farms in Oceanside [California], which donates several crates of vegetables to the cause each week,” wrote Kragen.

In July 2020, Dalton-Cook filed documents to make Paige’s Pantry a registered nonprofit organization. The organization received nonprofit status in January 2021.

Nowadays, Paige’s Pantry provides produce to 30 families. They hope to serve 100 families by early 2022.

It works like this: Paige and her mother pick fruit and amass produce donations every Thursday. Friday mornings, four young adult volunteers with autism ages 17 to 24, come to the Dalton-Cook home to help compile delivery orders. Then, the mother and daughter make deliveries to subscribers who don’t have transportation. On Saturdays, subscribers who drive come to the Dalton-Cook house and pick up their bags of produce curbside.

“It’s so new and growing so fast, I am taking this one week at a time,” Dalton-Cook told Kragen. “Paige and I are learning each day,” she said. “It’s definitely a learning curve, but so is every start-up.” Dalton-Cook hopes that someday, the venture will become Paige’s “full-time career.”

Photo courtesy of Paige’s Pantry, www.paigespantry.org

Space: The Final Frontier for Those with Disabilities?

Blog Para-astronaut
(Graphic courtesy of the European Space Agency)

Once upon a time in the not so distant past, many professions were off limits to individuals with disabilities. While disabled individuals still face significant obstacles entering the job market, one profession that was previously a pipe dream for the disabled is now a possibility.

In March of this year, the European Space Agency announced its search for the first astronaut(s) with disabilities. ESA’s “Parastronaut Feasibility Project” seeks individuals “who are psychologically, cognitively, technically and professionally qualified to be an astronaut, but have a physical disability that would normally prevent them from being selected due to the requirements imposed by the use of current space hardware.”

According to ESA, the time for the project is now. The agency recognizes that “since the last selection of ESA Astronauts in 2008-09, the expectations of society towards diversity and inclusivity have changed.” ESA wants to be part of that change for several reasons:

1. ESA recognizes the value of inclusion. According to the ESA website: “Including people with special needs also means benefiting from their extraordinary experience, ability to adapt to difficult environments, and point of view.” ESA leadership also believes the organization has a responsibility to work toward providing an inclusive workplace and industry.
2. ESA has a desire to “lead by example.” The agency hopes that the project will encourage qualified disabled individuals to apply for other jobs at the agency and to consider careers in the space sector.
3. The agency stated that having disabled astronauts “could bring some new, astonishing results in the field of life sciences for the benefit of even more people back on Earth.”

To come up with conditions for the project, ESA consulted with the International Paralympics Committee. Based on the consultation as well as the agency’s own assessments, for now, ESA has limited applications to those with very specific disabilities — “people without a lower leg, those who have one leg shorter than the other and adults under 4¼ feet tall.”

Since the project was announced, ESA has fielded hundreds of applications from candidates in 22 countries throughout Europe. The deadline for applications for the project has been extended to June 18, 2021. ESA stresses that the project is still in the experimental stages, so the recruitment is not associated with a particular space mission or launch date.

In the United States, NASA has expressed support for the project. So far, however, the agency has not opened its own application process to those with disabilities. In a statement, NASA’s Kathryn Hambleton told WIRED magazine, “We at NASA are watching ESA’s para-astronaut selection process with great interest. NASA is not currently considering changing our selection criteria, however space is quickly becoming more accessible than ever before thanks to NASA’s dedication to commercial and international partnerships. We look forward to working with ESA, and all our partners’ new astronauts in the future.”

Though this is the first time a government agency has recruited disabled individuals for a potential space mission, it is not the first time a person with disabilities has attempted space travel. In 2007, the late cosmologist Stephen Hawking who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis

(ALS), experienced approximately four minutes of weightlessness when he rode on the Zero Gravity Corporation’s modified Boeing 727 jet. It was the renowned scientist’s 65th birthday gift to himself.

Gotta Dance!

Blog: Gotta Dance
(Photo Credit: Infinite Flow Dance Co.)

The world of professional dance is cutthroat to put it mildly. Just ask Marisa Hamamoto, a professional dancer who founded Infinite Flow, a dance company for individuals with and without disabilities in 2015. Hamamoto, who experienced a stroke that left her temporarily paralyzed from the neck down in 2006, established the company to challenge the status quo in the professional dance world and to create opportunities for disabled dancers. For her efforts, Hamamoto was named one of People Magazine’s Women Changing the World in 2021. Recently, she told People “We’re changing the narrative around disability and diversity. We’re using dance as a way to dismantle stereotypes.”

Hamamoto isn’t the only dancer who believes that the world of professional dance should be more inclusive. Today, dance companies that include dancers with disabilities exist all over the world. Below are examples of just some of the dance companies that employ disabled dancers. As more and more performance venues reopen post-COVID-19, consider catching one of these companies in action:

 

  • Heidi Latsky Dance Company Based in New York City, Heidi Latsky is known as a “physically integrated” company because it integrates dancers with and without disabilities. Latsky is not disabled, but “in 2006, Latsky recognized a resonance between her own artistic process and core tenants of disability culture: prioritizing collaboration, centering radical bodies, exquisite asymmetries, moments of raw or uncomfortable beauty, and differences as sites of power,” according to her website. Her first foray into integrated dance came when “guided by influential disability activists such as Lawrence Carter-Long and Simi Linton, HLD premiered ‘GIMP,’ its confrontational first full-length inclusive work, in 2008, and toured it through 2012.”
  • AXIS Dance in Oakland, California, is probably the most well-known integrated dance company. The award-winning company was founded in 1987 and has toured widely. In addition to its performances, AXIS also offers dance classes and outreach programs for dance students of all abilities. In an interview with the Harvard Gazette in 2020, artistic director Marc Brew, who uses a wheelchair, explained, “in the world of classical ballet, everyone’s striving for the so-called ‘perfect body’ and looking the same. What we rejoice in and are very proud of is that through difference, there is beauty and that’s what we bring, and how we collaborate together. We’re not trying to be the same.”
  • Kinetic Light was founded by dancer, engineer and wheelchair user Laurel Lawson, lighting designer Michael Maag and dancer and wheelchair user Alice Shephard in 2016. Unlike many integrated companies, Kinetic Light describes itself as a “disability arts ensemble.” According to its website, the company is “led by a disabled artist; disabled artists create, design, and perform the work; our work speaks to and emerges from disability aesthetics and disability culture; and our work is connected to the rich traditions and exciting contemporary conversations of disabled artists in all artistic fields.”
  • Urban Jazz Dance Company in the Bay Area of California includes both hearing and deaf dancers. It was founded by deaf dancer Antoine Hunter. According to an article in Artnews, Hunter “reminds us that American Sign Language (ASL) is a form of bodily expression. He experiences music as vibrations in his bones rather than sounds in his ears, which makes the translation of beats to movements natural.”
  • Dancing Wheels Company & School, a physically integrated organization, was established in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1980. According to its mission statement, the company’s founder, Mary Verdi-Fletcher, was the first wheelchair dancer in America. The statement goes on to explain that “having been born with spina bifida, Mary wanted to open the doors of opportunity for people with disabilities who wanted to pursue their goals on an equal ground with their non-disabled peers. Mary always wanted to be a professional dancer, and was not going to let her disability stand in her way.”
  • Anjali Dance Company trains dancers with learning disabilities to be professional dancers. Founded in the UK in 1995, the company added a youth company in 2006. The company’s website says that the organization is “committed to challenging preconceptions about who can dance and demonstrating new artistic possibilities by creating dance works of excellence performed by dancers with learning disabilities.” The company offers dance education and outreach programs that are taught by instructors with learning disabilities. “Through our innovative and pioneering work, we engage the professional dance community in a debate on fundamental issues about aesthetics, form, purpose and inclusion.”