Paralympics-Damian Lopez Alfonso & Oscar Pistorius: Athletes of All Abilities

Nearly one in seven people is disabled, according to a new international survey from the World Health Organization and the World Bank — and today, more and more individuals with disabilities — physical, intellectual and others — are doing things that would not have been thought possible in previous generations.

Damain Lopez Alfonso is a talented cyclist who rides his bike with the handlebars 180 degrees upturned. He lost his forearms and was badly scarred after a terrible accident as a child in Cuba. As the New York Times reports, he has spent the past four months undergoing painful reconstructive operations and being fitted for prosthetic arms in New York. Alfonso can already ride his bike at speeds to beat almost all of us, but is having the surgery in order to cycle competitively in officially sanctioned international competitions, which have strict rules about using equipment. He’s to race in July in Canada, in the hopes of qualifying for the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.

Learning to ride with the new arm extensions has not been easy for 34-year-old Alfonso. He has been fitting with prosthetic arm extensions which consist of a “plastic cup connected to metal tubing and a hard-rubber claw-like ‘hand.’” The New York Times describes his first attempts to use these to ride in Central Park:

“I don’t like it,” [Alfonso] said. “I’ve ridden my whole life the other way, and now I can’t brake. I don’t know why I need this. Why do they have this stupid rule?”…

“Unfortunately, I don’t think the happy ending is going to come right away,” [John] Rheinstein [a prosthetics designer] said.

Indeed, learning to ride with the new arms will take time and training, as Mr. Alfonso adapts his highly developed riding style and gear. Despite state-of-the-art electronic shifters from Shimano, which allow him to change gears by lightly tapping a switch, using the prosthetics “will be hard,” he said.

Mr. Alfonso knows he needs to adapt if he is going to win medals, and eventually his competitive drive will take over, he said. “Because winning means always going forward,” he said. “Going forward, leading, always.” At 34, he quite likely has two shots left at the Paralympics, in 2012 and 2016.

Alfonso seems more than up to the challenge. I feel his frustration at not being able to compete by cycling in the way that he’s taught himself and can only note his determination still to succeed.

I’ve also long followed the story of Oscar Pistorius, a South African runner who races with prosthetic “blades”; he has been trying to qualify to run the 400 meters in the 2012 London Olympics, says the Wall Street Journal. As he says — words that more than inspire:

“I don’t want a lane because of my disability. I want to get a lane because of my performances.”

Bike riding has become an important activity and, indeed, sport for my teenage autistic son, Charlie. Just yesterday he rode in the Ride for Autism sponsored by AutismNJ, New Jersey’s largest autism advocacy organization. Bike riding might be a favorite activity for many a teenage boy, but it was an extra special challenge for my husband Jim Fisher to teach Charlie to ride once upon a time in a school parking lot. Charlie is on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum and, when he was younger, had some gross motor movement delays, plus he has trouble tracking moving objects. Now Charlie, always with Jim, rides 15 or so miles a day; at the Ride for Autism, they did ten, and then did two more rides at home.

In light of my son’s many struggles (some professionals have said he needed to be institutionalized, at least temporarily) for Charlie to be “out and about” on his bike, being seen excelling at something he loves to do, is a special form of witness — just as it is to see Alfonso riding his bike, and Pistorius running on his prosthetic blades.

Please follow the link to see videos of Damain Lopez Alfonso and Oscar Pistorius performing their sports:

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