Paralympian Mallory Weggemann Is Looking To Smash More Than Records—She’s Out To Topple Bias Against People With Disabilities

Photo: Courtesy of Mallory Weggemann; Graphic: W+G Creative
It’s crunch time for Mallory Weggemann, who is just weeks away from diving into the pool at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre to compete for her third Paralympic medal (she returned home from the London Games in 2012 with a gold and bronze around her neck). To ready herself for sport’s biggest stage, Weggemann is not only spending time in the pool and weight room for high-intensity physical training, she’s also working on her mental fitness. “I have spent a lot of time fine-tuning my mental preparations to make sure I am in the best headspace possible going into competition,” she tells Well+Good in an email. “It is important to realize that what we as athletes do is not just physical in nature, it takes an extreme amount of mental strength to do.”

“With that said,” Weggemann adds, “mental strength isn’t about ‘toughing it out’—it is about having emotional maturity and a heightened self-awareness.”

As gymnast Simone Biles demonstrated by pulling out of competitive events at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and tennis champion Namoi Osaka did before her by withdrawing from the French Open in May, caring for mental well-being, mental strength means knowing your “tipping point,” as Weggemann puts it. “It is important to acknowledge [our limitations] at times and create boundaries for ourselves,” she says. “But [boundaries] don’t have to limit us in our capacity.”

Weggemann isn’t one to let the limitations that other people project onto her hold her back: She has broken 34 American Records and 15 World Records. And it’s Weggemann’s aim to erase the limiting assumptions many able-bodied people have about people with disabilities. “We have a lot of room for growth in how our society perceives disability and, every day, people in the disability community have to advocate for themselves, for basic civil rights, and it is exhausting at times,” she says. “We, as a society, have long thought that living with a physical disability means you are physically incapable, but the Paralympic Movement shows that simply isn’t true…The truth is, every single athlete competing in the Paralympics is also an individual who lives with a disability and what we do on the field of play serves as a catalyst to change perception of disability by showing versus telling.”

"The truth is, every single athlete competing in the Paralympics is also an individual who lives with a disability and what we do on the field of play serves as a catalyst to change perception of disability." —Mallory Weggemann, Paralympian

The Paralympics “serve as a vehicle to spark a conversation” about the realities of living—and thriving—with a disability, Weggemann says. But that should be just the start. “We hold a lot of unconscious bias in our society in regards to disability and the way in which we perceive disability is often due to lack of representation or inauthentic representation,” she says. “Individuals with disabilities account for 25 percent of our society; that means one in every four individuals—yet how often do you see individuals with disabilities represented in media? The workforce? Entertainment? Political offices?”

The stories about people with disabilities that make headlines or are told on big and small screens are so often about “overcoming” one’s disability in order to accomplish feats of seemingly superhuman strength and will. Or, they present a picture of life with a disability as being somehow lesser. Neither framing speaks to the lived experience of most people with disabilities—and this is what Weggemann says needs to change.

“Much of how we form stereotypes is based on how we see [groups of people] portrayed in entertainment. But if disability isn’t included in the narrative, or is inaccurately portrayed, we have now subconsciously fed the narrative that there either isn’t a place in society for individuals with disabilities or that they are to fit this narrow mold we have created and there isn’t any variation,” Weggemann says. “In order to change perception, we must have authentic representation—a path forward that shows individuals with disabilities are more than their disability; they are also spouses, parents, siblings, children, friends, community members, business leaders, actors, athletes, politicians, models, and the list goes on. The biggest misconception is that our disabilities are all-defining and there is a one-size-fits-all for what living life with a disability looks like.”

The Olympics and Paralympics have become synonymous with “inspiration.” So, as the Paralympic Tokyo Games begin August 21 and we learn the stories of these athletes and their triumphs, let’s remember that inspire is a verb, an action word. Let's ensure the Games are that catalyst for change Weggemann speaks of. For able-bodied allies, this means taking up Weggemann’s mantle and pushing for more authentic representation of what it’s like to live with a disability, removing this burden of education from those who live this reality. As Weggemann says, “We can all do our part by choosing to educate ourselves, by addressing our own unconscious biases, and remembering the words we use matter, how we speak to individuals matters.”

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