Cheri Blauwet wins the women's wheelchair race at

(WOMENSENEWS)–When people ask wheelchair racer Jean Driscoll, the eight-time champion of the Boston Marathon in the wheelchair division, about the obstacles faced by female athletes with disabilities, she talks about Sharon Hedrick.

In 1984, Hedrick, a wheelchair track competitor, won two gold medals in the inaugural wheelchair exhibition at the Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles. In doing so, Hedrick also broke the 800-meter women’s wheelchair race record by almost three seconds.

“This wasn’t the Paralympics,” said Driscoll, referring to the competitions for elite athletes with physical disabilities. “This was the real Olympic Games. She was the first female wheelchair athlete to ever win a gold medal. Ever.”

But it wasn’t the record-breaking Hedrick whose picture made it onto the Wheaties cereal box, it was a man: wheelchair racing pioneer George Murray.

“Sharon broke the world record and she certainly didn’t get the recognition like George did,” said Driscoll, 39, who lives in Indianapolis and was named No. 25 of the top 100 female athletes of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated for Women at the turn of the century. “I don’t want to take anything away from (Murray’s) accomplishments. He was a stellar athlete during his time and deserved national and international recognition. It’s just that Sharon did too.”

Female athletes with disabilities still face a significant gap with disabled men and their able-bodied female counterparts. Women in the 2004 Summer Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece, represented less than one-third of the 3,806 participants, according to the recent data available from the International Paralympic Committee, based in Bonn, Germany. Women in the Olympic Games, by contrast, measured a much higher 44 percent of the 11,099 athletes, according to the Feminist Majority Foundation in Arlington, Va.

An estimated 43 million people in the United States and some 650 million people in the world have documented disabilities; it is the largest minority group on the planet and about half are women.

Disabled Still Stigmatized

“It’s seen as one of the only minority movements that is still stigmatized,” said wheelchair racer Cheri Blauwet, a seven-time Paralympic medalist. “We still have millions and millions of people all around the world with physical disabilities who are written off and nobody is screaming about it.”

Blauwet was injured in a farm accident in her home state of Iowa when she was 15 months old. Today, she is a fourth-year medical student at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.; the 2004 and 2005 Boston Marathon women’s wheelchair race champio; and a three-time winner of the Los Angeles Marathon. Because Blauwet became disabled as a child, she got into sports early in life and it’s helped her personally and professionally, she said.

But research from the International Paralympic Committee indicates that women in Paralympic sports report shortened sports careers. Unlike men, women who are not athletic and become disabled later in life aren’t likely to take up sports. That research also shows that women have less access to facilities and technology such as sporting wheelchairs.

Disabled female athletes are rarely honored or given much attention on college campuses, which could stop them from moving into a professional level, according to a report by the Feminist Majority Foundation.

New opportunities, however, are opening up.

Female power-lifting was added to the Paralympic Games in Sydney in 2000, and female judo and sitting volleyball were added at the Summer Games in 2004. The International Paralympic Committee has set targets for the Beijing 2008 Paralympics and hopes to have at least 35 percent female athletes. The International Paralympic Committee has for several years required that at least 50 percent of the development money it allocates be spent on women.

Spotlight Is On

Disabled women, including athletes, are also getting increased international attention.

Since December 2001, a United Nations ad hoc committee has been working on an international convention on promoting the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities, and a women’s caucus has been working to guarantee that the rights of women with disabilities are protected. The eighth session of the committee to consider proposals for a convention begins Aug. 14 in New York.

The New York-based Women’s Sports Foundation, founded in 1974 by tennis star Billie Jean King, puts disabled women on an equal basis with able-bodied female athletes for consideration of its awards. The foundation gave Driscoll, the wheelchair marathon champion, its Individual Sportswoman of the Year award in 1991, choosing her over Olympic ice skater Kristy Yamaguchi and Lynn Jennings, the acclaimed distance runner and Olympian.

“My heart was beating so hard and so fast I could not believe it,” Driscoll recalled. “That was the first time that I felt that people recognized me on an even level with athletes without disabilities, with other elite-level athletes.”

Awards Contenders

Driscoll is a finalist for the foundation’s Wilma Rudolph Courage Award, presented to a female athlete who exhibits “extraordinary courage in her athletic performance” and makes significant contributions to her sport. The award was first given in 1996 to track Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee and will be presented in October.

In 2005 the Women’s Sports Foundation chose Popovich, a 20-year-old swimmer, for the individual sportswoman of the year award, the organization’s top prize.

Popovich, a student at Colorado State University, was born with achondroplasia, a genetic disorder that disrupts bone growth and causes abnormal body proportions. Her arms and legs are short for her torso.

“It was a really cool award to win because to be recognized alongside able-bodied athletes is just amazing,” said Popovich, who edged out seven other able-bodied finalists on the short list.

A two-time Paralympian, she won seven gold medals in 2004 and set world records in the 50-meter freestyle, the 50-meter butterfly and the 200-meter individual medley events. She is training for the 2008 Summer Paralympic Games in Beijing and sees the effort as a way, in part, to expand opportunities for women with disabilities.

“It just means a lot of work, getting out there and getting people to notice,” she said.

Kristin Bender is a freelance writer based in Oakland, Calif.

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For more information:

International Paralympic Committee

Women’s Sports Foundation

Feminist Majority Foundation: Gender Equity in Athletics and Sports

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