When 502 athletes with various disabilities competed at last year's winter Paralympic events, they were sliding on more than ice and snow. These athletes were riding a sea change in the public's perception of disability, a symbolic closing of a chasm that has separated the able bodied from the disabled since the inception of the Paralympics in 1948.
"It made people notice us. Prior to the games it was hidden a bit, not many people understood it or acknowledged it and now that they've watched me and my teammates race in the Alpine events and all the other events as well they were like, 'Wow, these people can actually ski.' It was cool," said para-alpine skier and Whistler resident, Morgan Perrin who has competed in two Paralympic Games. "I think even though it's not going to be the same as able-bodied events and probably never will be, at the same time we're getting more recognition and that's a great start."
Prior to the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, there was a discernable lack of attention given to disabled sport in Canada. Aside from the occasional public pat on the head, Paralympic athletes were relegated to the sidelines behind their able-bodied counterparts and rarely given the support - financial or public - that they deserved. This support has been earned not just by overcoming disabilities but also for charging forth as serious athletes on courses designed to challenge their athletic prowess - a caveat that was finally achieved through the 2010 Paralympic Games. Anyone present at any of the sporting events last March will tell you the competitive edge is just as strong in the Paralympics.
"It was a huge leg up for a variety of those sports," said Don Lindsay, CEO of Teck Resources, which has pledged financial support to the Whistler Adaptive Sport Program (WASP) over the next five years. "I got to see Canada win the gold medal in Wheelchair Curling and I tell you what they can do is unbelievable and honestly the feeling in the arena was the same as it was for Gold medal hockey. The intensity and excitement was something. I think the Paralympics did a huge amount for disabilities in sports."
Though WASP has been working on improving the experience of disabled athletes in Whistler for decades, raising the profile of disabled competitors for the Paralympics helped the organization secure more than just funding in the lead up to the Games. The high profile of the Paralympic legacy programs helped boost WASP's publicity and the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC) gracefully propelled WASP to the forefront of outreach and school programs designed to improve awareness around disability issues.