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Local athletes take high hopes to high-profile Paralympics

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 30, 2012 - On Saturday, hometown Paralympic athlete Kerri Morgan won the bronze medal in the 200 meter T52 final at the Paralympic Games in London. Morgan had a time of 36.49 seconds. You can see the race here

Read the Beacon's earlier story below:

Right now, both Kerri Morgan and Colleen Young are missing school. 

They have a pretty good excuse, though -- London 2012.

The two local athletes (one an instructor, the other a high schooler) are competing in the 2012 Paralympic Games, which began Wednesday, along with some 4,000 disabled athletes from 160 countries. 

Morgan, an occupational therapy instructor at Washington University, competes in the 100-meter and 200-meter track and field events. She competed in the games in 2008 and was the first woman to be named to the U.S. quad rugby team in 2009.

At 14, Young, who will begin her freshman year at Lindbergh High School when she returns, is the youngest U.S. athlete to compete in the games. She will compete in swimming and holds the title of second in the world in the 100-meter breaststroke in her Paralympic classification, which is visual impairment, according to a press release from the Lindbergh school district. She’ll also compete in three other races.

The games feature athletes in wheelchair rugby, wheelchair fencing, swimming, sailing, shooting, powerlifting and many other sports. And this year, it might also offer a higher-profile platform for disability awareness.

“People are people and contributions and competitions and fun and camaraderie and all of that are just as much a part of a person’s life who might have differences,” says Margaret Gray, a professor and the director of special education at Fontbonne University.

World is watching

This year’s games are anticipated to be the largest Paralympics yet, according to an Aug. 14 press release from U.S. Paralympics, with sell-out crowds and expanded opportunities for tuning in across the globe.

“I think, in the U.S., it’s getting a lot more attention,” said Lindsey Bean-Kampwerth, director of the assistive technology center at Paraquad

This year, viewers can keep up with the games in a number of ways. U.S. Paralympics will highlight 10 videos each day on its You Tube channel. In September, NBC Sports Network will air highlights, and the International Paralympic Committee will offer live streaming of events on their website

Bean-Kampwerth, who will travel to London to watch Morgan this week, sees a few reasons for the increase in attention.

Oscar Pistorius is one of the things that is contributing to it,” she said of the South African athlete using artificial limbs who competed in the track and field events in the London Olympic games. 

Another reason is increasing disability awareness, she says, and a growing number of veterans home from war with disabilities.

According to a report from NBC, this year’s U.S. team has 20 veterans. 

This year also marks the 22nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, says Gray.

“Some people don’t even recognize that the ADA was civil rights,” she says, “but it obviously contributed a lot to the equity.”

Gray herself realized the level of attention the games had won when visiting London with a group of students before the Olympics. In Trafalgar Square, she saw a pillar lit up with the countdown to the games. On one side it counted down to the Olympics. On the other -- the Paralympics. 

Watching the world

The U.S. may have come a long way since the Americans with Disabilities Act first began, but Bean-Kampwerth thinks events like the Paralympics also offer the chance to see how other countries are doing things. 

For instance, Gray says, the federal government banned the term “mentally retarded” from use in federal laws in 2010. In her work with study abroad programs in England, Gray says, “they think use of (the phrase) mentally retarded is from the dark ages.”

Terms used now are people with intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities and cognitive limitations. 

And other countries also see the Paralympics, which have athletes with physical disabilities, a bit differently. In Canada and Great Britain, Bean-Kampwerth says, commercials advertising the games tout the athletes as super humans. Here’s one from Great Britain, and here’s one from Canada. 

What still needs work in the U.S., Gray says, is continuing community receptivity. It’s not enough to have a wheelchair ramp if it’s blocked by cords, she says. People with disabilities are citizens and customers and have needs at different levels. 

The language we use is also important, both Gray and Bean-Kampwerth agree. Handicapped might be part of the vernacular, but both women say it’s best to use language that is “people first.” A wheelchair-bound woman is defined by her disability. A woman who uses a wheelchair is first a person. A disability might change how people adapt and get around, Gray says, but “it doesn’t define a person.”

Following local athletes

Bean-Kampwerth leaves Thursday for London and will be watching Morgan when she competes Saturday and in the final on Wed., Sept. 5. 

She’ll include updates on Paraquad’s Facebook page and Twitter account. 

Because of training for the games in London, neither Morgan or Young was available for comment. But you can also watch the games from the viewpoint of some of the athletes with a video blog project by Samsung, including a little beat boxing and freestyling from members of the U.S. track team. 

Also competing in the games are three other athletes from Missouri. Sean Ewing, who’s from St. Louis and trains in Kansas City, will compete in track and field. Derrick Helton, from Tuscumbia, Mo., who trains in Tucson, Ariz., will compete in wheelchair rugby, and Susan Beth Scott, from Cape Girardeau, who trains in Colorado Springs, Colo., will compete in swimming. 

Beth Johnston, director of community relations at Lindbergh Schools, said at this time there were no plans at the high school to have a watch party for Young, who will try out for the school’s swim team this winter. 

She does expect the young swimmer to do well, especially in the breaststroke.

“It just goes to show you that anybody who’s determined and works hard can accomplish great things.”

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