By: Olivia Visser

What does a disabled athlete look like to you? The Paralympics might come to mind, with their innovative mobility devices for competitors, or the 69-year-old Xia Boyu, who summited Mount Everest as a double amputee. Disabled athletes come in many forms, yet those with invisible illnesses are often overlooked in the sports community. As a disabled athlete with an invisible illness, I sometimes feel alienated from both communities.

Social media can be deceiving. I hike and climb on my “good days,” which are few and far between lately. Nonetheless, I try to take advantage of them. The pictures I post of mountains and cliffsides are rarely without their own painful backstories: maybe I experienced a pain flare-up halfway through the hike, or my body struggled to cool itself while slogging up steep switchbacks. Usually, I return with at least a mild ankle sprain and spend a few days in bed afterwards. Some might think I’m irrational, and I’ve seen my fair share of internet comments to know what people might think of me. People already judge those who put their lives at risk by pursuing extreme sports, and mountaineering regularly faces debate for being “addictive, selfish, and deadly.” Certainly, “disabled mountaineer” would be a punchline in some circles.

It’s not just what I’ve seen online — I’ve made plans with people who blocked me after discovering I have medical conditions, despite those conditions being irrelevant to our outdoor activity. Maybe they see me as a liability or think I’ll slow them down. Who knows? I’ve never been in an accident, and I carry a satellite phone whenever I’m outdoors. I’ve taken courses and worked my way up slowly while doing physiotherapy. Currently, my health doesn’t stop me from getting where I want to go, so it hurts when people make assumptions about my abilities. That’s not to say I don’t understand the risks or take calculated actions to mitigate them, but sometimes the barriers in sports feel more social than physical.

It’s easy to feel excluded when performance is such a valued component of many sports communities. I used to overwork myself to increase my climbing grade but ended up feeling discouraged during extended periods of pain or weakness. Trying too hard also exacerbated my symptoms and caused more injuries. It wasn’t healthy. I had to learn to give myself permission to rest and lower my expectations. More often than not, I just focus on having fun nowadays, as I think that’s what sports should be about. Sticking to “easy” alpine hikes and climbs means I can seek out views and experiences without too much physical pain, or worrying about crushing records. High-intensity activity is fun sometimes, but it’s certainly not for everyone.

I was never actually very good at sports growing up, due in part to my medical condition. When it started to noticeably progress as an adult, I took that as a sign to hike as much as I could, in hopes of becoming strong enough to achieve my goals of summiting various local peaks. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was out three days a week training, sometimes in the dark with a headlamp. Over the past two summers, I was pleasantly surprised to find that rock climbing is a low impact sport which allows me to use flexibility and strength while exerting little force. I learned I could do the things I’d always dreamed of.

Many people would benefit from rethinking how our society looks at athletics. It’s exclusionary to prioritize being the best at a sport over having fun and overcoming personal barriers. One study found 40% of Canadians are intimidated by the gym, and this sense of intimidation is amplified if you belong to a visible minority group. Twenty-two-year-old influencer and wheelchair user Sophie Butler said, “Accessibility isn’t just about ramps and lifts, it’s also about attitudes and values.” For some, athleticism may look like challenging yourself with weights or going mountain biking. For others, taking a stroll with their mobility aid is an athletic activity. We need to consider individual differences and goals if we want to make athletic spaces comfortable for everyone.

Disabled people lack representation in sports environments, as the fitness industry promotes an “ideal” athlete archetype that simply isn’t attainable for most. The Paralympics receiving fewer media coverage than the Olympics and a lack of diversity in advertisements are two examples of this. Degree launched a film campaign in 2021 called “Watch Me Move,” aimed at highlighting the diversity of para-athletics. The campaign emphasized that “fear of judgement” is what keeps many people away from being active, not physical ability. Expanding our understanding of athletics means recognizing that disabled people are diverse and capable of many different things.

I sometimes feel isolated from the disabled community as well because of my invisible illness. It feels like my good days are too good for me to use the disabled label, because strangers who see me achieving my goals probably don’t know what goes on behind the scenes. I know most of it is just in my head, but these worries are reinforced by systemic barriers, too. Recently, the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) announced its shift to International Paralympic Committee (IPC) standards for competitions. This is troubling, as IPC standards also underwent a recent criteria change and extended the list of non-eligible impairments. Disabled people with conditions that cause joint instability, impaired motor reflex functions, and hypermobility will no longer be eligible to compete in parasports. This is troubling especially since competitions match people depending on the function and severity of their disability. What does someone do if they’re too disabled to compete in regular sports, but not disabled enough for parasports?

While awareness is the first step towards equality, disabled people are likely to continue facing barriers in the years to come. I hope this doesn’t stay the case as our society slowly moves towards embracing accessibility, but experience tells me we’ve still got quite a lot of work to do. If there’s anything meaningful I’ve learned as a disabled athlete, it’s that fitness is for everyone. Instead of hyper-focusing on performance, we should prioritize personal goals and having fun. Don’t be deceived into believing you don’t belong to the fitness community because of your activity choice. If you’re active, congratulations, you’re an athlete in my books.