This past year I had the wonderful opportunity to guide and push a wheelchair at a #rundisney half marathon event in Orlando, Florida. It was incredible to be able to give back to another athlete, but it opened my eyes to the world that many us "abled" runners completely disregard.
In fact, I was absolutely disgusted by the end. Whether behavior was intentional or simply ignorant, I watched and felt the struggles and disrespect that disabled athletes face simply trying to pursue their athletic endeavors.
There were many disrespectful and frustrating things that occurred on course during my time as a pusher - but the scariest was a combination of all the following issues.
An athlete who had headphones in, went from running to walking and was weaving around the middle to left hand side of the course. We attempted to pass after properly calling out "on your left" but this athlete slowed and moved right into our path in one motion. What happened? We had to try to jerk the wheelchair to keep from hitting her, which in turn, caused for a wheel to break off, athlete almost went flying and could've ended the race or hurt someone badly. Luckily, we were able to reattach the wheel, and no one was hurt. However, our athlete was shaken up.
How incredibly sad that an athlete spent the rest of her participation worried we were going to wreck again simply because an abled-bodied athlete cared more about her tunes and disregarded surroundings.
Seeing the frustration, fear and hurt in that athlete spurred on this article.
Here are my top tips, as an abled athlete just wanting so bad for my disabled friends to be able to compete without extra barriers and struggles. There will be more tips that can help but these are a minimum we, abled-bodied athletes, can commit to doing to ensure a safe and happy event for everyone.
#1 Take out the damn headphones
First, and perhaps the biggest issue is this also impacts abled-runners. Running with headphones, even if allowed by the race, leads to many safety issues. Not only are you not able to hear officials, race staff or volunteers with any announcements or course changes - but you're unable to hear verbal signals from disabled athletes in need of response.
I've watched it happen on many courses and learned it myself as the pusher. Whether a handcycle, or a pushed wheelchair, these chairs can't maneuver quickly around you, so it is imperative that you are able to hear verbal alerts being spoken.
What happens when you can't hear? You get your foot run over or heel clipped. Even worse, if you’re maneuvering about the course and aren’t reactive to our verbal alert, we can slam into the back of you, injuring both you and the disabled athlete.
The unfortunate reality is that many events have thousands of athletes who are so focused on their tunes they don't consider the fact that you may be impeding, or directly causing, safety issues to disabled athletes.
It’s hard enough to haul yourself across miles. It’s even harder to do it in a wheelchair or run with a guide and solely rely on their commands.
I get it, music to participate with can help you pass the miles. But at what point do you think that perhaps giving up your music for a few miles can give a disabled athlete a chance at participation just like you?
Solution: Leave the headphones at home and enjoy the course, leave an open ear, or use bone conducting headphones. Most of all- pay attention to your surroundings.
#2 Walkers to the side
Before I start to get all sorts of hate mail, I do NOT have a problem with people walking in races. In fact, run/walk intervals are a great way to accomplish goals, manage your body and simply just enjoy the time on course.
However, when there are faster objects and individuals coming up from behind you, it is not only inconsiderate, but dangerous, to be positioned in the middle or left of the course.
Wheelchairs, handcycles and guided athletes are not able to easily weave through hordes of bodies. Abled-bodied runners can readily slink through these slower, staggered objects. Disabled athletes cannot. Be mindful and do not walk in the path of faster, oncoming athletes.
Solution: When you know you're about to walk, start angling towards the right-hand side of the course.
#3 Use hand signals
While we're on the topic of walking, did you know that going from a run to a halted stop while initiating your walk interval is downright dangerous to moving objects behind you?
Again - Wheelchairs, blind athletes with guides and others needing support – are not able to easily maneuver around it.
Let's go back to science. What happens to an object in motion, it stays in motion? Without proper warning and signals, a heavy-duty wheelchair, hand-cycle or a guide-supported athlete who has to respond to commands, will NOT have enough time and/or power to avoid hitting you.
So, what happens?
Not only do you get slammed into from behind or your heels clipped, but it can compromise the integrity of the support this disabled athlete is using to participate. Friends, disabled athletes cannot effectively stop on a dime. Wheelchairs and handcycles are heavy with limited mobility. Athlete guides calling out commands take a few seconds to register with their athlete.
Be mindful that not everyone is as fortunate as you to have your senses and full-body control to stop yourself from danger.
Solution: As you approach your threshold or time limit and know you're going to walk, raise your hand for 3-5 seconds and move yourself to the side.
#4 Stop spitting
Besides the obvious health reasons, it's downright disgusting. Need to spit or snot rocket? Move to the side and ensure no one is near you.
This is the part of the half-marathon where I about lost it on the other abled runners around me. A male abled athlete ahead of us barely glanced over his shoulder to check for athletes behind him. While he made a half-hearted effort, he didn’t truly survey the athlete heights behind him. He never saw the wheelchair. He proceeded to spit.
Where do you think that spit went? Right into the face of my wheelchaired athlete.
Can you even imagine how appalled and disrespected this athlete felt? Perhaps she’s used to it, since she mentioned this is commonplace. How embarrassingly horrific is it that disabled athletes have to accept getting spit or snot in their face as “common place” when attempting to participate in an event?
Come on abled athletes, let’s do better!
Solution: Move to the side, check your surroundings and do your business. Or carry tissues/rag.
#5 Be accommodating to runner alerts
"On your left" is a perfect way to communicate to other racers where you are. This is pretty common place in cycling events but is just as needed in any other events where there is forward motion of many individuals in the same direction. "On your left" provides the slower athlete an opportunity to know they're being passed and to react.
This is how it works. As the faster athlete approaches from behind and/or left, they call out “on your left”. The slower moving athlete should hear and move over if able to the right-hand side of the course. This allows for both athletes to maintain their speed without compromising safety.
We can circle back to #1...if you have your headphones, you can't hear this.
It was interesting to see abled athletes get aggravated at these verbal calls. The only other option was to run them over or slow way down.
Solution: Verbal calls are done for a reason. Don’t get aggravated, just comply.
There’s more to it.
This is not all we can do to be better humans. But we can start with this.
Do you want to be the reason a disabled athlete was impeded and prevented from her Boston qualification or personal best? I bet not.
By now, you recognize that the mobility and maneuverability of disabled athletes is not the same as abled. Don’t approach an event with an abled athlete mindset. Think of those dealing with disadvantages you never have to face and be thankful you GET to do this without those.