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Why Disabled Figure Skaters Are Fighting for the Right to Fall

For skaters with disabilities, participating in sport isn't just about competition—it's about being allowed to be exceptional.

by Nell Frizzell
Oct 13 2015, 1:00pm

Photos courtesy of Inclusive Skating

Young girls in flower-print leggings and embossed track suit jackets wheel past me with suitcases full of skates, fake flowers, and hair spray. A small Scottish redhead goes through her paces outside the corrugated iron building beside a chain-vaping mother, her lime green socks flashing as she kicks across the car park. A group of nervous, puffer-jacketed teens hover above the plastic fold down seats, shaking bottles of water like croupiers rolling the dice: The tension is as palpable as the vanilla body spray in the air. I'm at the Lee Valley Ice Centre in London, watching a flock of pre-adolescent girls and boys slide around the ice as part of the Southern Open IJS Competition.

All the figure skating cliches are there—the glitter, the apricot-colored tights, the white boots, the slush puppies. But there is something missing, despite the wheelchair ramps, accessible doorways, and viewing platforms: Diversity. Despite the enormous rise in inclusive skating across the Atlantic over the last few decades, you won't find a disabled skater competing in an International Junior competition any time soon. You won't even find them at the Paralympics.

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Figure skating has been established as part of the Special Olympics—the world's largest sports organisation for people with learning disabilities—since 1977. By 2011 over 7,300 people were taking part in the event, which judges skaters on poise, movement, and creative flair. In 2012, the British campaigning organisation Inclusive Skating held the first international club competition where skaters with all forms of impairment were able to compete on an equal basis. In two years time, alpine and figure skaters will be going to the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria for the first time. Inclusive skating is, as they say, a thing. But not one without its problems.

"Figure skating is very technical and so for someone with a learning disability that presents considerable challenges," says Andy Heffer, the director of sport and development for the Special Olympics. "First, you have to learn to skate which, as any of us who have Bambi-ed across the ice can tell you, is difficult in itself. Then you have to learn and be able to execute a routine. Also, there aren't that many ice rinks and it's an expensive sport, which is challenging because a lot of people with a learning disability don't have jobs."

We had a skater with an amputated leg.

It's not just access to the ice that can prove expensive; figure skating also demands transport, equipment, and costumes. But where there's a will, there's a way, argues Alan Seabrook, director of the Lee Valley Ice Centre and former chairman and president of the National Ice Skating Association. "We had a skater with an amputated leg," he says in his office, overlooking the huge white oval used by the TV show Dancing on Ice as a training ground. "So New English, which is a boot manufacturer, made us a special skate for her—they drilled out the heel and things to make it the right weight. It's just a matter of making sure that someone, whatever their impairment, can participate... One of my sons, who we adopted, has cerebral palsy and I made sure he did everything."

Watching Calum Titmuss at the 2014 Austrian Special Olympics in Vienna, speeding across the ice, his black sequins glinting under the frosty white light, it is clear that you are watching someone with ambition, balance, and strength. He leaps, he spins, he goes down on one knee and moves across the ice to the deafening strains of "Singin' In The Rain." He glides past the judges, one leg straight out behind him, like Grace Jones on the cover of Island Life, before coming to spiralling stop in the centre of the rink. He throws his arms up with glee, a rare moment of euphoria, before taking two tight two bows and skating off the ice.

In another competition video, Courtney O'Connor stands in the centre of the ice, her gossamer-thin blue skirt giving way to a pair of strong legs the color of digestive biscuits. The synth-clopping soundtrack kicks in and suddenly O'Connor is flying backwards, glinting silver, her arms stretched out like a fulmer on the wing. A minute into the routine and she jumps, spins in the air, then accidentally slides off balance and lands on a pair of crumpled legs. This is the moment that terrifies many parents of disabled people—the pain, the shame, the risk of injury—and yet O'Connor quickly gets to her feet, powering up to speed and leaping into another circling jump.

Giving young disabled people the opportunity to be in more risky situations is, if anything, more important than for non-disabled people.

"Giving young disabled people the opportunity to be in more risky situations is, if anything, more important than for non-disabled people,"' says Inclusive Play practitioner Ali Hall, whose organization designs outdoor play equipment accessible to children of all abilities. "Otherwise they develop this way of being that is risk-averse and, in later life, stops them being independent. Unless they learn to cope with falling over or getting lost, how are they going to go on holiday by themselves? Travel around London alone? Go to work?

"For someone who's got a mobility impairment or a sensory impairment, moving around at great speed, in a cold space, with One Direction blaring, surrounded by loads of people doing the same thing as you is brilliant. You're included. You have a thrill, excitement, and there's an element of risk involved. You might want to do wheelies or a spin; do a conga or a limbo. It opens things up in a really playful way."

While the UK battle for inclusivity in skating competitions has nudged along at the speed of a retreating glacier, the situation off the competition circuit is, if anything, worse. Ice rinks are typically old buildings, designed for people who can stand up and get their skates on; they simply weren't built with wheelchair users in mind. "There's also the cultural barrier," says Hall. "That's due to fear, usually; not wanting it on their watch, on their rink, in case something goes wrong. I've taken people to ice rinks where they cordon off a tiny bit at the end so you don't have any speed or fun or freedom. Skating is one of the easiest inclusive activities you can do—wheelchair users and non-disabled people do it in the same way—and yet when you have your own cordoned off area it's horrible. Young people have said they feel like they're in the 'freaks' area, where all the different people go."

When it is catered for, however, inclusive skating is in many ways a greater sport to watch than non-disabled figure skating. While there's all the drama of the speed, movement, and strength you'd associate with whizzing across frozen water at high speed, to watch a disabled figure skater offers something else: Joy. "I think that tends to get lost in a lot of non-disabled sport these days," says Andy Heffer. "Some of our athletes are incredibly serious and train very hard but they always seem to manage this sense of enjoyment." Calum's ecstatic air punch; Lauren Miller's huge smile as she executes an airbourne twist to the strains of flamenco guitar; Diane Joelson's surprise and pleasure when she pulls off a backwards, single skate section; all are expressions of a pure pleasure too often buried by the pressure, corporate bullshit and self-importance of professional sport.

But while Olympic and Paralympic performance may be stripped of some of the amateur dramatics, it is important for inclusive skaters to be able to progress and compete just like a non-disabled skater. Which is where Margarita Sweeney Baird comes in. As the Inclusive Skating Chairman and a coaching and competition advisor for the Special Olympics GB (Great Britain), Baird has campaigned for many years to have inclusive skating included in the Paralympics.

All the things that you learn in becoming a coach apply just as much to someone with a learning disability.

"We had to create a system that could accommodate any kind of disability,' she says. "The traditional International Judging System [for skating competitions] gives an absolute score. But I knew that I needed to find a way of calculating impairment—some way of working out a numerical value that you could then add on to the score. I spoke to lots of doctors and, thanks to a consultant in occupational medicine, found the Rondinelli Guide. It is a calculation of impairment for all sorts of disabilities dating back to the 1940s; it comes in a great thick book, now in its sixth edition, and is used all over the world for insurance claims and things."

Was Bairdnot worried, I wonder, about giving individuals a score? Giving their impairment a numerical value, if not ranking? "Not at all. My daughter, like all disabled ice skaters, loves it because it's fair," she answers. "It's not discussed much at the skating competition—it's very discreetly done. It gets added in through the bonus box on the scoring system. But it means that you could get total integration of disabled and non-disabled people in skating competitions. This scoring system makes it equitable and fair."

According to the system created by Inclusive Skating, people compete according to different levels and the movements demanded by that level. For instance, a level one skater will be expected to perform two-footed skating; a level three skater will have enough coordination and balance to be able to do an edge, a jump, a little bit of a spin; a level six skater will be doing double jumps, skating forwards and backwards, and proper spins. That means a blind skater, a skater with Down's Syndrome, and someone with complex needs can all compete, on the ice, against each other, tooth and claw, skates and hairspray—while the value of their impairment is used to work out a final score and their competitive ranking.

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So just how hard is it to get into inclusive skating? Just how different is the sport to its non-disabled counterpart? "One of the barriers to inclusivity is the idea that this is an incredibly specialist area where you need lots of training to do it," says Andy Heffer. "But all the things that you learn in becoming a coach apply just as much to someone with a learning disability. Yes there are certain things you need to know. For instance, don't tell someone to think about four things before they go onto the ice but ask them to remember just one. The crucial thing is knowing your athletes—who gets nervous and who doesn't. Some people need calming down, others focus, others geeing up." Some skaters will simply want to get on the ice, dolled up like a lycra-clad extra from a Kate Bush video and have fun. Others will want to do spins, fly through the air like a knife, totally nail a three minute routine or compete against the best athletes in the world. In every case, it's possible. In fact, it can be wonderful. It just takes a little funding, guidance, accessibility, design and the desire to make it happen.

I start to walk home from the ice centre, my hands stuffed in my pockets, my breath misty. And that's when I remember it; the greatest moment to have ever slipped along the surface of the ice. Not Torvill and Dean swaying to "Bolero" at the 1984 Olympics; not Ernest Shackleton screaming through the howling winds of the Atlantic; not Londoners skating down to Putney of the frozen Thames in 1900. But Rocky Balboa falling in love, as he guides a bobble-hatted Adrian across an empty ice rink in downtown Philadelphia. Because that's the magic of skating: Anyone can do it. Everyone should do it.

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figure skating
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Broadly Health