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Cheri Blauwet’s Rousing Spirit

March 10, 2009

Blauwet conducts tutoring sessions to Ugandan coaches at the Lugogo Indoor Stadium

By Charles Mutebi

TO say everyone cannot tell the difference between a child with disabilities and a disabled child is false because only about 99% can’t.
More on the actual difference later but the 1% who know it include, among others, Kampala Kids League (KKL) commissioner Trevor Dudley, Adopted Physical Activity International Development (APAID) founders Pierre Bataille and Steiffi Dejong and American Paralympian Cheri Blauwet.

The four have been brought together by their desire to improve the lives of children with disabilities through sports through a new programme in the KKL.

The initiative engages children with disabilities in sporting activities to demonstrate their potential not only in sports but, crucially, in life.

Early grief
All four are heroes for seeking the greater wellbeing of a generally underrated minority but it is fair to say Blauwet is the most outstanding — although unlike Dudley, Bataille, and Dejong she cannot as much as stand on her feet.

The American was left paralysed after sustaining a spinal cord injury in a farming accident in her home-town of Larchwood, Iowa when jsut two.

Despite that, the 28 year-old has won seven Paralympics medals including gold in the 800m in 2004 and silver in the 100m at the 2000 Games. She had a more agonising time of it in Beijing, where she finished outside the podium not once, not twice but three times.

“I got three fourth-place finishes which was so… I guess, uh, bitter-sweet.”
Be that as it may, there’s little doubt Blauwet’s most cherished pursuit lies off track.

Noble cause

Her devotion to improving the lives of people who similarly have disabilities is second to none. It’s for that reason she came to Uganda three weeks ago, purposely to help KKL put in place a programme that will meet the needs of children with disabilities.

“I’m here in Kampala for two months working with APAID to help develop the programme,” said the amiable Blauwet.
“I’m kind of a consultant with regards to how to best build a sports programme for children with disabilities that is focused on the rights of the children and also the empowerment of the children to be strong independent adults and to reach their own personal goals.”
Blauwet believes sport is the best channel to build the self-belief of children with disability as well as disprove the notion of incapacitation that the society perceives of them.

“I believe that sport is very unique in that it as a tool for promoting disability rights. It is the one thing that inherently breaks the stereotype,” she argued.
“You take something like disability for which people are sometimes still discriminated against because of their lack of physical capacity and you directly challenge that stereotype by directly placing those people on an athletic field and showing what is possible with a few adaptations to highlight their physical mobility and physical capacity.”
According to Blauwet, the fact that people with disabilities can partake of sport illustrates that physical impairment might have more to do with opinion than meets the eye.

‘Able’ philosophy

“We are saying, ‘Okay these people are different because they are not physically able’, but what is physically able?” she asks.
“You know “able” within a culture and not within a person. So if we build a culture in which we take away the physical barriers, in which every building has a ramp, every building has an elevator, the sidewalks are accessible for wheel chair users, there is on-signs on doors, there is brail for people with visual impairments…
“Then we also educate people to think differently about disability then we are not really disabled, right?”

It is safe to say there’s a long way to go before Blauwet’s global vision catches on but if there is any illustration of what determination can achieve, it’s her own life.
“I remember a few times when I was about five or six years old when all of a sudden I realised I was different and I began to question mostly my parents,” she recalls her first reactions to the realisation of her immobility.

“Mummy, why me?”
“I remember asking my mother, ‘Mum I don’t understand why am I different, why I’m I like this and no one else is?’ She would often say, ‘Umm…God knew that you were special and that you would be able to handle being different and so he chose you’.”

Blauwet adds: “But with that they would always emphasise that even though I was different, I was not any lesser. So since I was young I’ve always seen myself being a wheelchair user as nothing more than (whether) I have blond hair or brown hair.
“I have blue eyes, I’m this tall and I’m a wheelchair user. I consider it simply to be another characteristic of who I am rather than something that makes me less able.”

Little wonder then that Blauwet cautions parents who have children with disabilities about treating them with “pity” instead of “challenging” them to avoid seeing their disability as meaning they are any less than their peers.
She was willing to offer an illustration of what a parent would say to his/her child.

“You, for this or that reason, are an individual with a disability but that does not mean that your life is any less valuable than anyone else and in fact I expect the same of you and I know you that you can achieve the same as anyone else.”

“So what do you wanna be, what do you want your life to become and let’s think about how we can get you there but you’re gonna have to work hard along the way just like everyone else.”
With Blauwet set to add a medical degree to her numerous on-track accomplishments in June, such advice is worth heeding.
What’s more, that’s counsel she will use in the not-too distant future when she starts a family, something she admits she looks forward to.

“I’m still having fun and travelling and I think I still have a little bit more time to do that before I decide I have to stay put in one place!” she hastily adds.

Not that KKL will be complaining and yes, the difference between disabled children and children with disabilities is simple.

Disabled children don’t exist.

Published on: Saturday, 7th March, 2009, The New Vision in Kampala, Uganda

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