"I Consider Myself an Empowered Woman": The Interaction of Sport, Gender and Disability in the Lives of Wheelchair Basketball Players

Article excerpt

Abstract

This research, involving interviews with elite female wheelchair basketball players, explores how gender and disability intersect in the lives of these athletes. Interviews revealed the integral role athletic identity plays to offset the stigma of disability in their self-identities and in the complex relationships each has with social norms in regard to gender, disability, sport and the body. However, social institutions, including that of adapted sport, reinforce an ableist, sexist ideology that persistently marginalizes these athletes.

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Although Karen DePauw encouraged feminist scholars almost 10 years ago to address the lack of attention to the intersection of gender, disability and sport (DePauw, 1997), a paucity of research exists that would move us toward deeper understanding of gender and sport in light of disability. Critical inquiry involving disability still does not enjoy the status of that involving race, ethnicity and sexuality; scholars often work inside an invisible ableist paradigm (Roher, 2005; Samuels, 2002). Further, feminist scholars have not responded to connections between critical inquiry involving the female body and the disabled body (Garland-Thomson, 2005; Hargreaves, 2000; Rohrer, 2005). One feminist assumption that undermines the plight of women with a disability is the liberal feminist ideology of autonomy and independence as part of a broader "impulse toward female empowerment" (Garland-Thomson, 1997).

Yet, "if disabled people were truly heard, an explosion of knowledge of the human body and psyche would take place" (Wendell, 1997, p. 274). Scholars such as Rosemarie Garland-Thomson have rightly argued that incorporating disability into feminist scholarship "does vast critical cultural work" (2005, p. 1557. See also Garland-Thomson, 1997, Fine, M., & Asch, A. 1988). The theory and praxis of non-disabled feminists is liberated as they shed their ableism (Rohrer, 2005).

I seek to interrogate my own ableism as I probe the experiences, attitudes and values of U.S. Paralympian wheelchair basketball players. I want to understand how gender and disability intersect in self-identity and in athletic pursuits. I seek to validate these athletes' perspectives as contributing to our understanding of sport and disability in ways that "malestream" social science cannot (Thomas, 1999, p. 78). Personal experience should be central to understanding women with disabilities (Hargreaves, 2000).

Narratives of the experiences of any research subject are mediated by the worldview of the researcher; thus, disclosure of a scholar's "positionings" is key (Thomas, 1999, p. 80). I am a white, able-bodied feminist who stumbled on disability sport (also called adapted sport) through meeting wheelchair athletes at a major university. I have no connection to adapted sport other than contacts in the field. Through discussions with athletes and advocates, I learned that able-bodied sports feminists (such as myself) do a disservice to women when we fail to address our own limiting ideology about gender and the body. My interest in the experiences of women in adapted sport, then, is driven by my realization that feminist studies in sport must incorporate ability/disability to declare themselves truly libratory.

The dynamics of disability and gender in U.S. culture

In Stigma, a groundbreaking work addressing the sociology of living as the "Other," Erving Goffman described the shame imposed on people outside the "norm" (Goffman, 1986, 1997). Disabled and able-bodied people lead segregated lives at least in part because of the stigma attached to disability, which pervades almost all relationships (Hargreaves, 2000; Susman, 1994). People with a disability often internalize their shame and may try to mask their impairment as they accept the values that define them as being trapped in a negative body (Brittain, 2004; Goffman, 1986, 1997; Hargreaves, 2000; Susman, 1994; Wendell, 1997). …