Why Do We Need to Compete?
by Matt Simpson
As a kid, I didn’t know that I loved to compete—or at least I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that I did, had you asked me. But there is no doubt that I loved to win. Games on the playground, academic contests, and especially arguments with anyone whom I could convince to listen to me were fair game as far as I was concerned. Later, when I found the sport of goalball, I was able to channel that desire into a more organized and constructive arena. And still, just like the kid that I was, I absolutely hate to lose. But unlike that kid that I was, I have learned that losing is a part of the process of competition, and competition a part of life.
What does it mean to compete? As someone who is blind, I was left to largely figure this out for myself. All too often, in the world of disability, simply participating is considered an accomplishment. While the ideal of inclusion is certainly a worthwhile goal, by settling for mere participation in activities, whether athletic, academic or social, we are implicitly lowering the bar and telling people with disabilities that their minimum effort, if directed into anything, is enough to satisfy a world ready to be pleased and “inspired” by people who are perceived as less capable of pursuing truly extraordinary accomplishments. And those of us who do have disabilities are all too often eager to accept those implicitly lowered expectations. Why should we, as people with disabilities, try harder than we must when many of us can put forth less than our maximum effort and still receive praise from a world full of people who are conditioned to fear the failure of those considered to be less capable than themselves?
I was recently at a conference for vision professionals where I met a young teacher of the visually impaired. Through our conversation, her interest in sports and goalball in particular became sparked. She recognized the need for her students to have an athletic outlet as well as an opportunity to compete on a level playing field with their blind and sighted peers. I was shocked a few days later to receive an email from the teacher telling me that her higher-ups at the state commission for the blind told her that goalball was not a worthwhile pursuit for students and that they would absolutely not support any effort to bring the sport to the school system. Their concerns revolved around the fact that goalball, being a sport created for people who are blind, isn’t inclusive and is a departure from the “real world” in which we need to teach our students with disabilities to live. Never mind that goalball is a game that is perhaps more inclusive than any other sport played at any level. The blindfold is the ultimate device for inclusion, allowing blind kids to match up versus their blind and sighted peers on a level playing field in a way that they simply cannot in almost any other physical endeavor. By taking the ideal of mainstream educational inclusion to a radical, if logical, conclusion, these educators fail to realize that before a student who is blind can learn how to exist confidently in “the real world,” they need to realize the true depth of their abilities. For some, their gifts in the classroom or in music can provide this confidence; but for many, the realization that blindness is a characteristic, not a defining quality, can’t be learned until the potential for equality of outcomes is provided through equality of opportunities. In this “real world” in which these school administrators hope to one day push their blind pupils, opportunities will not always be equal. However, through competition, these blind students will learn that hard work and determination can overcome even the most severe bariers of accessibility. That is a lesson that will be hard to find in the mainstream classroom alone, where students’ needs are so closely monitored and hard lessons of success and failure are perhaps more difficult to come by. Competition, especially through sport, is a secondary but vital part of education for our sighted students; it is absolutely crucial that educators of the blind come to realize this holds equally true for their students as well. Through competition, we can prepare our students with disabilities to realize their potential while developing the crucial skills needed to thrive as someone with a disability in the workplace and beyond.