When I made my first trip out in public to a store since the pandemic began, it was late 2020. With my trusted guide dog, Birdie, I nervously walked into the Apple store near where I live. I had been there many times before, but COVID-19 changed everything.
Everyone was wearing masks, which inhibits my ability to read lips. The store layout had changed, which made it difficult for Birdie and me to get around. As a deaf-blind person who was born with Usher syndrome, a condition affecting both hearing and vision, I am used to being forced to become comfortable in uncomfortable surroundings. That’s part of the deal.
And that’s what makes my decision to withdraw from the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Paralympics so incredibly difficult.
The Paralympic Games are supposed to be a haven for athletes with disabilities. The one place where we are able to compete on a level playing field, with all amenities, protections and support systems in place. After COVID-19 put last year’s Games in Tokyo on pause, we all expected and were forced to deal with the reality that this summer’s Paralympic Games would be altered in many ways. But then I learned this summer that U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee denied a reasonable and essential accommodation for me to be able to compete at the Games.
We need to trust our surroundings
Since 2017, the USOPC has approved the use of a personal care assistant (PCA) whom I know and trust to be with me at international swim meets because of my disabilities. But not this year.
With health and safety of the utmost importance at the Games this year – rightfully so – the USOPC denied my request on the basis of COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the Japanese government. This just doesn’t add up. I strongly believe the reduction in staff was not intended to reduce the number of essential support staff for Paralympians, like PCAs, but to reduce the number of nonessential staff.
Leaving half the team behind: Even Olympians need their moms. But my daughter will have to compete in Tokyo alone.
Athletes with disabilities are able to compete in a setting like the Paralympics because of PCAs. They help us navigate these foreign venues, from the pool deck, athlete check-in to finding where we can eat. But the biggest support they provide athletes like myself is giving us the ability to trust our surroundings – to feel at home for the short time we’re in this new, unfamiliar environment.
I have repeatedly been told that I do not need my PCA whom I know and trust.
The USOPC informed athletes that there will be a single PCA on staff available to assist me when needed. But this PCA is also responsible for being on call for 33 other members of the Paralympic swim team. There are eight remaining visually impaired athletes competing on the swim team alone, yet not one person on the swim staff is specifically certified to work with blind or visually impaired athletes.
How could I possibly set foot in a foreign city, with the numerous restrictions and barriers that COVID-19 has put up, and expect to feel safe for two weeks?
How can any of us?
Letting disabled athletes down
This isn't the first time that I have been let down by the USOPC. At the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio, I was crippled with fear and anxiety before competition even began. Surprisingly, no one on the 2016 U.S. Paralympics Swimming staff was prepared to care for a deaf-blind athlete. I was overwhelmed navigating the athletes' village, finding the bus terminal, making my way to the venues where I needed to compete. I had such issues in and around the dining hall, where I wasn’t able to find the right food to eat, that I started skimping on meals.
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I reached out to the mental health professional on staff to help, but learned she was off campus and wasn’t set to return to the athletes' village until the night before competition began. The situation got so bad that the head coach of the U.S. Paralympics Swimming, Queenie Nichols, decided I needed to be removed from the village and stay with my parents at a nearby hotel to get out of a potentially dangerous situation and properly prepare.
In that moment, I promised myself that I would never be put in that situation again.
Yet, here we are.
Every single Paralympian has earned the right on this team to compete for our country. The Paralympic movement has never had a bigger platform on the world’s stage than it is going to have this summer. Advertisers, brands and networks are all celebrating athletes with disabilities. Showcasing us breaking barriers, defying odds, overcoming adversity. What you don’t see though, is that many of those barriers and adverse situations are being created by our own Paralympic structure.
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What happens if there is an emergency in the middle of the night? What if we need to be moved from one venue to another quickly? Masks and distancing have made it incredibly difficult for me to make out what people are doing or saying. If I don’t have someone I can trust, how can I trust that I will be safe?
I did not make this decision on a whim. It was agonizing. I have trained for five years to get back to this point. I know my chances to swim for my country are coming to an end. But enough is enough. I need to speak up for the next athlete who is deaf-blind or disabled in another way. As Paralympians, we train as hard as our counterparts, the Olympians. We deserve the same quality and safety nets that our able-bodied teammates will receive in just a few days’ time.
I have the Olympic rings tattooed on the back of my ribcage. That means something to me.
It also should mean something to the country I swim for.
Becca Meyers is a two-time U.S. Paralympic swimmer. She has won three gold medals, two silvers and a bronze. A native of Maryland, Meyers was born deaf with a progressive sight loss due to Usher syndrome type I.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Becca Meyers: Paralympic athletes need more support at Tokyo Games