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August 30, 2012

Daring to be different | The Chronicle Herald

Canadian wheelchair athlete Josh Cassidy, who recently set a world record at the Boston Marathon in the wheelchair division, trains in Toronto on April 25, 2012. Cassidy will be representing Canada at the 2012 Paralympics in London, England. (NATHAN DENETTE / CP)

This op-ed appeared in the Chronicle Herald August 30, 2012

All 20 of the fastest times in the 2012 Boston Marathon belong to wheelchair racers. In fact, Canadian wheeler Joshua Cassidy (1:18:25) had time for a nap while waiting for Kenyan runner Wesley Korir (2:12:40) to finish. A luxurious 54 minutes, to be exact. Gravity? The course does drop 425 feet in 26 miles — a barely noticeable three-tenths of one per cent grade — but that benefits runners and wheelers alike. Meanwhile, the course has some daunting uphill stretches, and dragging an extra 15 pounds of wheelchair up Heartbreak Hill surely offsets any advantage from turning potential energy kinetic.

But this is apples and oranges, angels and pins. One shouldn’t be confused by the artificiality of divisions into thinking there is a single winner of the Boston Marathon, and then some women and then some wheelchairs. They’re all committed athletes, running the same race differently.

People with disabilities have a special perspective on difference — we are, in many ways, defined by it. Many of us embrace our differences as extraordinary gifts.

Some would say Stephen Hawking won a Nobel Prize in spite of his condition. People with more imagination might wonder if it’s because of his condition. Conventional thinkers see him as suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease. (Lou, by the way, was not a bad ball player.) I’d say Stephen Hawking is a pretty spectacular physicist and that there’s a decent chance his achievement is connected to his physical characteristics. At the very least, his circumstance provides an unusual perspective on the universe. His work habits, his personality and maybe even the way his brain is wired are hard to separate from his success.

Without variety, we are doomed as a species. Some think people with disabilities are defective. They forget that nature’s experiments made it possible for chimps to walk upright and for plants to have sex. In fact, people with disabilities live at the leading edge of biological, cultural and technological evolution. As exemplars of diversity — living experiments — people with disabilities represent possibility, not failure.

When the rest of us can’t cope with the heat of global warming, someone with an unusual genetic makeup may be as cool as a cucumber. When the next avian flu arrives, a difference in blood chemistry may confer immunity. Genetic differences are humanity’s insurance policy — not a sideshow, but the main evolutionary event. People whose disability arises from non-biological causes (like accidents and injury) are often the first to use new technologies and inspire us to think of useful applications. And people with disabilities challenge our cultural assumptions every day.

We are a creative bunch, navigating the obstacles carelessly strewn across our physical and psychic environment. Imagine living in a world designed for aliens. Steps, books, iTunes, fibulas and sinks work for most of you. That’s great. But it’s more than a little entertaining figuring out how to make stuff work for the few of us. Artists paint with their feet, Aaron Fotheringham does flips in his wheelchair, Oscar Pistorius gets to the Olympics, Helen Keller got to Radcliffe and beyond. Life is a problem set and people with disabilities get an abundance of bonus questions.

Problem solving fortified with perseverance can unlock many puzzles. What would Sisyphus be without his rock? A disability is a lifelong exercise in persistence and patience and a lesson in how to plan for every eventuality. When one approach doesn't work, try another, and another. As Camus observed in his essay on Sisyphus, “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart.”

Do watch the Paralympics, remembering that the athletes are pioneers of the next chapter in the human story, and then follow along as best you are able.

Warren Reed is a human-rights advocate who lives in Halifax.

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