Disability InclusionStudent Athletestwo hands with 3 fingers on each of them holding a football

Athletics has always been in my blood.  From the first time I watched Hulk Hogan bodyslam Andre the Giant to watching the San Francisco 49ers dominate the NFL during the 80‘s, I knew I wanted to compete on the biggest scale possible.  On the surface, this was an unrealistic goal.  I was missing fingers and had shortened forearms, who was I to compete with “able-bodied” athletes in anything other than soccer?  I remember my surgeon trying to push me to compete in the Special Olympics as a swimmer but my fear of the deep end quickly killed that dream.

Someone born into my situation tends to fall into a weird No Mans Land at times.  My “disability” allows me to function in society without any serious need for accommodation but some things can be tougher for me than say those five fingered folks out there.  I always felt like I was not “disabled” enough to compete in things like the Special Olympics or amputee sports but different enough that playing against the “able bodied” in many sports was challenging.   As a result I spent much of my childhood with no involvement in formal athletics.  It would have stayed that way until I turned on the tv and saw a one-handed pitcher on the California Angels by the name of Jim Abbott.  He was awesome.  I remember buying his biography through the school book club and reading it several times.  I posted his pictures in my locker; a tradition that exists in some form today.  If Jim could do it, I could do it and that’s all that I needed to persist.

Choosing to play football was especially challenging for me but I loved every minute of it.  I was the victim of many snide remarks from people I thought were my friends but by then I had grown pretty tough skin.  I was cut from the team in my senior year of high school but found myself playing for the University of Toronto six years later.  It was a road filled with bumps and challenges.  From the men’s league coach who was resistant to me playing because this wasn’t the “Special Olympics” to mangling my elbow during training camp to former best friends telling some nasty jokes about me playing football.   It was tough but I am stronger for having gone through it.  It really was  the most surreal experience of my life and taught me a lot about myself and the people around me.  The life lessons I learned during my journey in football were priceless and I spend much of my free time promoting those lessons to anybody who will listen.   So on that note, here are some random reflections and pieces of advice.

Lesson #1: This is specifically to the “disabled” athletes out there.  Compete at the highest level you can.  Don’t let people tell you to settle for less or play sports that would be “easier” for you to do.

Follow your heart and go after it.   You know your limitations and capabilities more than anyone else.  Pardon the cliche but: go for the gold.

Lesson #2:  Faith is such a huge part of this whole process.  Faith in yourself.  Faith in the journey.  Faith that it will all work out; and trust me it does.

Lesson #3: Naysayers will be naysayers so don’t listen to them.  There are certain people out there who will try to bring you down for simply trying to do something you love.  Ignore them.  They will only get in the way of success.  Also, don’t try and please them because they can’t be pleased.  Nothing you can do will silence their criticism so it is best to cut them from your life.

Lesson #4: Don’t let your critics take your pride.   A few years ago I competed in my first karate tournament just for the fun of it.   As I was prepping for my next match I overheard my first opponent saying to another competitor that he felt sorry for me and went too easy.  His tune changed later that day when I took the gold medal in sparring.   If I believed the naysayers and all the other critics out there my accomplishments would have been because people felt sorry for me.  I would have never earned it.  I was just a mascot.  That’s a load of you know what.   Be proud of what you accomplish and know that you ACCOMPLISHED it.  Nothing on that field, rink, or ring is ever given to you so don’t let people tell you otherwise.

Lesson #5:   This one may reflect my own personal bias more than anything else but I think it is important to note this.  This may be useful for some of the student-affairs administrators out there as well.  A “disabled” student athlete is often going to identify as an athlete first and disabled second.   Athletic identity often supercedes other identities in college athletes and those with “disabilities” are no different. For me personally, “disability” probably ranks fifth on my identity chart behind being an athlete,  Italian, Canadian, a member of a fraternity, and then as someone who was born looking different than the rest.   Just be aware of that in your dealings and in some of the assumptions you may make.

These days my athletic exploits are limited to my Playstation and the occasional karate tournament.  I recount my football and disability journey in several forms to different crowds.  If I had to boil all my talks down to one simple lesson it would be this: disability is a state of mind and not a diagnosis.  The biggest obstacle to our success is our attitude and the way we react to adversity.   I always put the word disability in quotation marks when referring to myself or others.  It’s just a word and like many things in life, that word only has as much power and influence  over our own lives as we allow it to.


Dr. Paul Artale is a motivational speaker who shares his story of overcoming disability to play college football as a way of teaching organizations to break through their challenges. For more information visit www.paulartale.com

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