Believe it or not, there are plenty of wheelchair-accessible — and wheelchair-oriented — races in the United States every year. In fact, we have a storied history of “wheelchair racing” here in the states. Many of these races are open only to those who have a specific type of disability, such as certain kinds of amputees or those with spinal cord injuries. Other races are open to the general public to raise awareness of the hardships endured by those confined to wheelchairs. We recommend this kind of race to anyone who qualifies! They’re tougher than you think.
Not everyone has an easy time entering marathons that require special types of wheelchairs or qualifications, though. Stephen Norris had to fight for his right simply to participate. He was confined to a wheelchair because he was born with Spina Bifida Myelomeningocele.
The Bank of America Chicago Marathon requires users to use a racing wheelchair during the event, and Stephen didn’t have one — nor could he use one. Norris didn’t want to be excluded simply because of the limitations of his own disability.
Norris eventually received permission to use his own wheelchair. He finished that race.
He said, “I wasn’t overwhelmed with pride. I stood up for myself and others like me who are told that we aren’t enough, that our athletic accomplishments don’t count, that we can go far, but only so far.”
And this race was a huge deal for Norris. He had previously aspired to become one of the Abbott World Marathon Major Six Star finishers. That title is only held by people who have completed races in Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, New York, and Tokyo. He wasn’t happy when he was first told that the Chicago race wouldn’t be possible due to his disability.
Norris commented, “I found it ironic that the Chicago Marathon is touted as ‘inclusive’ when it shuts out an entire category of disabled athletes on the basis of the wheelchair they use. I am not a wheelchair racer, so I don’t belong in the wheelchair category, and the Athletes with Disabilities category is only for those who are ambulatory. I am an athlete with a disability, but I’m not allowed to participate because I’m the wrong kind of disabled?”
The accomplishment was even bigger for Norris because of his difficult past. He had sustained a serious injury that left him bedridden when he was 21, and he went from being underweight to being obese in a span of only eight months.
Norris explained, “I became depressed and developed a poor relationship with food, and binged daily as a coping mechanism.”
He got into shape with the help of wheelchair races — but he has no aspirations to become a “racer.”
He said, “I do not aspire to be a wheelchair racer, and have no intentions of ever competing in the sport.”