Ripple Effects 3.4: Of Paralympic Epiphanies and International Development

Anjali racing down a track with 2 African women
From international wheelchair racing champion to international development. Learn how Anjali did it in this latest episode.

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Justin Harford (JH): Welcome to Ripple Effects: Travelers with Disabilities abroad, brought to you by the national clearinghouse on disability and exchange, a project sponsored by the US Department of State's Bureau of educational and cultural affairs and administered by mobility international USA

We know that international exchange contributes to personal and professional development. It can enhance one's confidence and skill sets, broaden one's perspective and shape one's educational path. It can also influence job choices and employment opportunities. Let’s find out how. For this season of Ripple Effects, we will hear stories from international exchange alumni with disabilities and how their programs relate to their careers. This is part of a new initiative from the clearinghouse called, #LifeAfterExchange.

I’m Justin Harford, a Project Coordinator with Mobility International USA and your host for Ripple Effects.

Sometimes international exchange can help us discover a career direction. When Anjali Forber-Pratt, who is a wheelchair rider, travel the world competing in the Paralympics, she noticed that the majority of those with whom she was competing came from so-called wealthier developed countries like Britain, Australia and the United States. People from so-called developing countries like Zambia, Bermuda or India, from where she was adopted as a child, were absent. Now, her mission is to bring the Paralympics and other athletic opportunities to disabled people through her international development work.

JH: So Anjali, one part of your story that really inspires me is that as a student in high school I really didn't have amazing access to physical education and that's kind of been part of your mission.

Anjali Forber-Pratt (AF): Yes absolutely… A very important part of my mission.

JH: Could you tell us about some of the international work that you've been doing lately as far as developing opportunities for people with disabilities in other countries to compete in the Paralympics?

AF: Certainly… So one of the really amazing platforms with being a US Paralympic athlete has also been able to carry that torch forward and to help to develop Paralympic sport programs in other countries. And to me my fundamental view is that if everybody is capable of leading active healthy lifestyles and... maybe... that can lead to competitive sport ...if so great, but for persons with disabilities especially in some of these countries just to be able to be out and about in society and to be able to be active with a particular sport can help to keep individuals out of the hospital, and keep from secondary infections and all of these other secondary complications that often can arise when you have a disability.

JH: Absolutely and for me I had to learn that lesson a little later in life when I started working and started having all kinds of repetitive stress injury issues, and now that has been my motivator to really get my physical education going. But you… You are I think a 2011 world champion in wheelchair racing… 200 yards… And you have a couple of bronze medals I believe from China and you are the perfect person to be taking this on. I wonder if you could tell us about that experience that you have in the Paralympics and and how that all came to be.

AF: Sure… Sure… So for me my athletic successes are certainly something that I am very proud of, lots of hard work blood sweat and tears so to speak went into those medals, and lots of coaches and supporters… individuals along the way, but for me it was also the other side of this… Of being in the Paralympics village and realizing that there were other individuals… Other athletes from other countries who don't necessarily always have those same… The same access to sport… The same access to amazing coaching staff… The same type of access to equipment that we are fortunate to have here in the United States, and that was something that from the time that I started competing on the world stage I became very very aware of, and I'm not sure whether that awareness was just something about you know who I am in terms of that really resonating with me… Because I'm also adopted from India and so I think that it definitely kind of struck a chord at a personal level as well, which is why this has become a part of my mission.

JH: Basically you are saying that you started competing on the world stage in the Paralympics and you noticed that there was a discrepancy between people from different countries who were competing?

AF: Yes so Based on where it was that you lived in the world, you may have a greater opportunity or access to reach the Paralympics games level. Some countries didn't even have what's called a national Paralympic committee, which every country needs in order to field a team at the games… You have to have some organization and some structure in place so that the International Paralympic committee knows that you are a legitimate country… So to speak… And there is a process that all countries have to go through, and it's very similar on the Olympic side too, but if you've never gone through that process than that opportunity in and of itself fundamentally isn't on the table for certain individuals.

JH: Wow… Well… And you… So you set out to make your goal to go and work in developing countries to help get Paralympic committees going?… So people could compete from those countries?

AF: Yep Yep so it's multifaceted right. So part of it is certainly being able to establish a Paralympic committee… Part of it is being able to find the athletes who want to participate in Paralympic sport, and then it's also finding coaches who are able to coach and to support athletes who want to go through that trajectory and in the world of adaptive sport, also finding and locating equipment to make those dreams a reality. So it's definitely multitiered

JH: A lot of moving parts there

AF: Yes

JH: But that process though… You have an interesting story though because in that process you eventually did get to see kind of the fruits of your labor when you competed in 2012 right?

AF: Yes. Yes. So a little bit of back story is that as of now I have been involved in this type of developmental work in Bermuda, Ghana, India and most recently Zambia, and one of the most rewarding things was actually from the London 2012 Paralympic games… So in terms of how the games went for me personally athletically I was not performing quite as the level that I was hoping going into those games, because of some health complications and so forth. But for me one of the biggest takeaways, and really one of the career defining moments for me was being at the London 2012 games and on the starting line of all of my races the 100 m, 200 m and 400 m… The finals actually for all of those races, not only was I there on that starting line, but there was also an athlete from Bermuda, as well as an athlete from Ghana in the same track classification who were my direct competitors actually for those events. And I played a very small role in helping to get those athletes to that starting line, but the fact that they qualified, had their country supporting them and that they were there and had met the same rigorous qualification standards that I had to meet as well was just phenomenal.

JH: Wow…

JH: I mentioned at the beginning and didn't really explain it but your story at the beginning a lot of people would think that you had amazing accessible physical education but that wasn't really true could you tell us about what it was like for you getting to the point where you could compete in the Paralympics? At the world level?

AF: Yes absolutely. You would think that I would have come from a place or a school district that really supported not just physical education but also sports, but unfortunately that was not the case. I was actually banned from participating in physical Ed from the 5th grade on because according to the school district I was a "danger" to the other students. And that certainly didn't sit so well with me… I'm not going to lie… And it was a combination though of issues like that as well as just basic fundamental access to English class or chemistry class that actually lead me as a 14-year-old to sue my school district in federal court for discrimination on the basis of disability.

JH: So it was definitely a rocky road there for a bit.

AF: It got pretty bad for a bit,

JH: but you… Where did you get access to physical education… The training that you needed?

AF: Yes so I was really fortunate that there was a Saturday sports group for children with disabilities. It was unfortunately about an hour away from my parents house, so that was a big commitment on the part of my parents and at a very young age just figuring out carpool arrangements and all of that In order to make that a priority to allow me to get to try every sport that was out there and to get to experience that. But I was very fortunate that it was through local disability community-based organizations that I was able to try not just wheelchair racing but also downhill skiing and tennis and basketball, foot hockey pretty much you name it and I had a chance to at least try it once. It was more so the wheelchair racing and the downhill skiing that I really enjoyed from a competitive standpoint.

JH: what did you notice as far as what was it like in other countries for people with disabilities wanting to get fit and access physical Ed?

AF: Yes so I think every country is different, and every country kind of comes with its unique challenges, and unique opportunities. I will say that one of the things that was striking to me that I have seen in several of the countries that I've been in is kind of this concept of interdependence… A lot especially the disability community here in the United States we focus so much on independence, and we think about what is it that individuals can be able to achieve by themselves on their own completely separate from assistance from others and so forth. But I really think that we need to reframe that conversation to be more about interdependence and how is it that… sure you as an individual can have a voice and agency and a say in what those choices are about your life, and perhaps like the sport that you want to participate in or the school you want to go to or what it is you want to study absolutely, but that we can rely on assistance from others, not as a negative thing, but rather as support… Support in place that individuals may need in order to achieve those goals. And I think that that was the really striking thing for me to witness like I said in several of those countries… Bermuda was a great example being a very small island nation… only 26 square miles… But to have one athlete who was wanting to push this dream of Paralympic level track and field to watch not just her family rally behind her and support her but also the entire island, and the community that she has supporting her in those efforts was just truly remarkable.

JH: So in places like Bermuda you saw that the communities were taking a lot more interest and there was more of a collective interest in supporting people with disabilities and making sure that we could be successful?

AF: Yes… And you know it got the attention of companies and corporations in terms of sponsorship dollars to be able to get that act (inaudible) right?

JH: Yes

AF: And so when you think about how multifaceted this is, by being able to think a little bit more broadly about what that type of support can look like, it also has a tremendous amount of benefit like that. One of the things on the flip side though is that one of the challenges in some of these countries is information… So they don't have rich histories of community-based disability support programs for example, because they haven't done this before right… But to me knowledge is a fairly easy gap to fill, and doesn't take a lot of resources to fill out gap.

JH: Especially when you have the community will there… It's just a matter of education.

AF: Exactly…

JH: Yes I actually like that example. Whenever it seems like in the disability community in the US we talk about developing countries it is usually to talk about how behind us they are or the challenges I guess I should say, and we don't always stop and think about what are the advantages, and there really are advantages, and there really are things that developing countries have going for them that we've got to keep in mind, and when we go out to those countries and work with them on community development projects that we've got to challenge other people in those communities to keep in mind too, because I've also heard people tell us "oh you have so much going for you there's no way we could ever make it work," and it's not necessarily true.

AF: Right. And I also think too the other piece to that that is in a lot of the countries that I've been there is sometimes this notion that everything must be perfect there in the United States, or in America… being a person with a disability, and when I share some of the experiences that I had in high school it becomes an eye-opening experience, and it's not to say that you are trying to pit one country against another in terms of where is worse for people with disabilities by any stretch of the imagination but it's to illustrate the point that even in America we have things that we need to work towards in order to improve the lives and the opportunities for people with disabilities, and I would say that right now more than ever even though we are just now celebrating the 27th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act we are still having to fight similar fights… You know even in this country.

JH: Yes exactly. Wow that's awesome thank you so much I really enjoyed talking to you about this and I wonder… Just kind of as a close up if you could just share us some comments about what you are doing now and where you see yourself going in the future.

AF: Sure so right now I'm an Assistant Professor at Vanderbilt University, and in that role I am teaching future school counselors and clinical mental health counselors… So that is to me a very important piece is to… Make sure that our counselors are aware of disability related issues and are able to meet the needs of our population here in the United States and beyond, but then the other piece of that is I get to conduct some of my own research and I do a lot of work related to disability identity development, and like we talked about too what is the role that sport may be able to play in helping individuals adjust to strengthen their own identity as a person with a disability because sport for me really was able to provide me with that access to that community of other people like me and that's… And it's not the only place where you can find other people with disabilities in but it's the kind of a natural people rallying behind something that they love where some of this can kind of help individuals to adjust to things that might otherwise be very challenging.

JH: Awesome… Awesome… Well thank you so much Anjali I appreciate it very much and we wish you luck in all your endeavors.

AF: Thank you so much it was great talking with you today.

JH: thank you for listening. Please consider sharing Ripple Effects with your networks and letting us know what you think on Twitter @MobilityINtL or Facebook mobility international USA using the hashtag #LifeAfterExchange.

And to learn more about #LifeAfterExchange go to

The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange is a project of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, designed to increase the participation of people with disabilities in international exchange between the United States and other countries, and is supported in its implementation by Mobility International USA.