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Sports: A Vehicle to Disability Advocacy

Introduction

Last week I introduced you to Blind Beauty Eliana Mason. Today, in her Women On the Move article, you’ll learn more about how she became a fierce sports competitor. A Disability Advocate in the making, I can see Eliana changing perceptions about visual impairment through her love of sports.

It’s not easy living “in-between” (not fully sighted, not fully blind). Like a vast number of conditions, visual impairment/blindness is a spectrum. None of us “see” the same, even those who have the exact same condition. We all “see” differently and whatever residual sight we possess impacts day to day living.

Visual Impairment & The Public

Peru 2019 Calahan & Eliana
Peru 2019 Calahan & Eliana

When I was born the doctors thought I was completely blind. I have underdeveloped eyes along with congenital glaucoma and cataracts. At just 9 days old I underwent surgery to remove my lenses. However, because my eyes were not fully developed the doctors were unable to complete the procedure, and my lenses were not replaced. This resulted in me having very limited vision in my right eye and only light perception in the left.

People always ask me “what can you see?” I find this difficult to answer because I was born with my eyes this way. All I can see is all I have ever known, therefore it makes comparison almost impossible. One big frustration I have is that most people don’t realize what it means to be visually impaired. Our brain wants to quickly categorize things and so others typically either think you are sighted or blind.

Visual impairment is a concept that confuses a lot of people and I have been accused of “faking” my disability. Who would even want to do that?

I get anxious using my cane because people have said to me “you are looking at your phone, why are you using that cane?” What they don’t understand is my font is HUGE, I have my screen zoomed and I am holding my phone right in front of my face. I want there to be more education on what it means to be visually impaired, and that no two individuals’ eye conditions are the same.

I want to feel confident and empowered using my cane, a tool meant to help me. However, often I am nervous due to the stigma and reactions by other individuals. It is my goal to be a disability advocate and change the way disabilities and especially blindness is viewed.

Natural Born Competitor

Team USA Red Carpet 2016
Team USA Red Carpet 2016

I grew up as the middle child between two brothers. Thus, it was my mission in life to keep up with them in every way possible. They are to blame for my competitive, stubborn, determined, and assertive nature. You really have to be tough growing up with only brothers. I would get frustrated when I couldn’t keep up with them athletically due to my vision.

Growing up I led a very active lifestyle; I loved hiking, camping, skiing, and of course playing sports. I tried a variety of sports, including cheerleading, track, gymnastics, and soccer. While I loved them all my vision became a barrier to my overall success.

At 15 I was so excited to discover goalball, a sport I could excel in without having to compensate for my vision loss. It was the first time in my life that I felt like I could be an athlete first. I was able to focus solely on the sport, without making adaptations or accommodations for my visual impairment.

You may be wondering what goalball is? It is a Paralympic sport geared specifically for blind and visually impaired athletes. It was developed in WWII for blinded vets and is now played internationally around the world in over 200 countries. I highly suggest looking it up. I joke that it is a sport for blind individuals, however, the easiest way to understand it, is to watch a game. Goalball is unlike any sport you have ever heard of and has changed my life.

Taking Love Of Sports To A Higher Level

Lima 2019 Throwing Photo is described in the body of the post.
Lima 2019 Throwing Photo

Through sports, I have really developed a stronger sense of self. Competing with other athletes who share my visual limitations helps me see them as role models, not only in sports but in life. I felt like I was part of a community bigger than myself and it really improved my overall confidence and identity.

Sports have shaped me into the person I am today. Through playing a competitive team sport, I appreciate the hard work, dedication, failure, loss, success, perseverance, and extreme joy that comes with the game. These are skills I can take off the court and implement throughout the course of my life. I would be lost without the opportunity to compete in sports and am so thankful I found goalball.

At first, I enjoyed goalball because it was something new, accessible, and sports-related. However, something changed for me after competing for a year and I realized I wanted to try and make the Paralympic team. I knew this would take a lot of drive, determination, and sacrifice which I was ready to give. I made the 2016 Rio Paralympic team and helped Team USA win a bronze medal in the sport of goalball. While this was amazing I am hungry for more and am training fulltime to compete in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics with the overall goal of winning a gold medal. Training involves strength and conditioning, on the court practice, and nutrition.

Rio 2016 medal photo
Rio 2016 medal photo

Athlete Becomes World Traveler

Goalball has expanded my world, opportunities, experiences, confidence, and ability to navigate the world as a blind individual. I first started the game at 15 and am now 24. During this period of time I have been to:

Additionally, I’ve met other Olympic and Paralympic athletes, and had the privilege and opportunity to represent the USA on a world stage in the sport I love. I am currently living in Fort Wayne Indiana to train fulltime for goalball. We have our resident training center out here where we conduct on and off the court training five days a week. Having the opportunity to train with my team daily has exponentially increased our team’s skill and ability. I am so thankful to the City of Fort Wayne and Turnstone Center for Adults and Children with Disabilities for providing us with this experience.

It has been worth it to make the move in my life, however, it was honestly really scary to do so. Moving across the country away from my friends and family to an unfamiliar location was a very hard decision. I have grown a lot from this experience in my independence and have learned a lot about myself.

My boyfriend competes on the USA Men’s Goalball team. We are blessed that we get the opportunity to travel the world together and cheer one another on. Dating someone who shares my disability has taught me to be creative in how I do a lot of things. However, it has been really empowering to navigate the world together and teach others that we can accomplish anything we put our minds to.

Furthermore, I am a graduate student at Antioch University, aiming to achieve a Master’s in clinical mental health counseling. It is a passion of mine to work with children and families and I would ultimately love to specialize in disability counseling. I want to ensure that all families understand disabilities and know how to foster growth and independence in their children. A quote I really like (not sure where it comes from, I saw it written somewhere online) is “disability does not mean inability” this is how I live my life, and this is the message I am hoping to impart on the rest of society.

Lima 2019 medal photo
Lima 2019 medal photo

Image Descriptions:

  • Featured image – an action shot of Eliana playing goalball at the Para Pan American Games in Lima 2019. In this photo, she is on the ground blocking a goal shot from the opposing team.
  • Peru 2019 Calahan & Eliana – Lovely capture of Eliana’s boyfriend, Calahan (his right arm wrapped around Eliana), while standing in the arena in Lima 2019. Both are grinning as they are about to bite into their silver medals.
  • Team USA red carpet banquet in DC after the 2016 Rio games. Eliana is standing on the carpet wearing a red dress and gold sandals. Eliana has honey blonde hair just below her shoulders. She is wearing a bronze medal around her neck and behind her is a dark gray backdrop with the Team USA logo and logos of company sponsors.  
  • Another action shot of Eliana from the Para Pan American Games in Lima 2019.
  • A team photo on the medal stand from Rio 2016.
  • Another team photo on the medal stand from Peru 2019.

6 thoughts on “Sports: A Vehicle to Disability Advocacy

  1. Very educational speech for us with no vision problems and very inspiring.

    1. Thanks Aimee, How are you? How was your Thanksgiving?

      1. You’re welcome. My Thanksgiving was very good. We went to my sisters. How was yours?

      2. It was nice. Two of my sons, my grandson, brother and I went to my mom’s then we swung by one of my friend’s home.

  2. Another powerful story, Steph. I learn something everyday. I also really like the quote “disability does not mean inability”, and Eliana has proved this to be so, in every way. Kudos to her!

    1. Thanks Khaya! I’ll pass your message on to Eliana.🤗

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