When I was in high school and later college, I desperately wanted to be a member of the debating teams. Both times, I was denied because I stuttered. The rejections left me bitter, angry and were deeply painful. I could not understand why I could not be given the same opportunity as others to compete. After all, my mind was as good as theirs.
The reality was, it took me longer to speak. To compensate for my dysfluencies, I offered to use a metronome or another rhythm method. The results were the same a resounding no from the powers. I have often wondered if I had the chance to prove myself as a debater, what kind of influence would that success have had in my life?
Let’s fast forward to the present. South African Oscar Pistorius was born with his fibulae missing in both legs. He says he is “the fastest man on no legs.” Pistorius is the double amputee world record holder in the 100, 200, and 400 meters events and runs with the aid of carbon fiber transtibial artificial limbs. His artificial lower legs, while enabling him to compete, have also generated claims that he has an unfair advantage over other runners.
Last month, Pistorius competed against able-bodied runners in Sheffield, England. Wearing prosthetic legs in a 400-meter event, he was as eager as a thoroughbred horse bred to run. Unfortunately, he did not prove he was the better runner. During the race, he was disqualified for running outside his lane. Since then Pistorius has petitioned to compete with able-bodied runners.
While no decision has been made on his petition, in 2007, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) amended its competition rules to ban the use of "any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device." It claimed that the amendment was not specifically aimed at Pistorius, and is monitoring his track performances using high-definition cameras to determine whether he actually has an advantage.
(Speaking of advantage, I wonder id the IAAF realizes the tremendous strength, mental and physical stamina it takes to use the artificial legs.)
Pistorius should challenge this ruling in court. Hopefully, the court will have as much sense as the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin. The Court ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires the PGA Tour to allow professional golfer Casey Martin to ride in a golf cart between shots at Tour events. The ruling was a civil rights victory for people everywhere. One of the results of the victory is it laid to rest the erroneous notion among the PGA elite that the ruling would destroy the purity of the game.
Technology can be the great equalizer among people with disabilities. Technology compensates for the loss of a sensory function – vision, speech or a limb. In this case, the orthopedic legs that Pistorius uses during competition may allow him to compete with athletes with legs. His artificial legs may or may not give him the opportunity to run the 400 meters as fast as athletes with legs. However, he should be given the opportunity either to succeed or to fail. By competing, he may re-define the terms “handicapped” and “disabled.” He may bridge the gap, maybe blur the line, between the abilities of able-bodied and Paralympic athletes. His athletic abilities should not be defined by his disability. He deserves an equal opportunity to compete.