Running is for everyone: Achilles International Athletes on Why Inclusion Matters

In honor of Disability Pride Month, we’re highlighting an organization that supports athletes with disabilities across the globe. This article was originally published on August 7, 2020.

“Don’t listen to the people who tell you you can’t do things,” says Matt Davis. Born with spina bifida, Davis has used a wheelchair and lived an active lifestyle since he was a kid. Now an elite wheelchair racer, he mentors other athletes to push their boundaries at the Nashville, Tennessee, chapter of Achilles International.

Achilles is an organization that uses athletic programs and social connection to transform the lives of people with disabilities across the globe. Together with volunteer guides, Achilles athletes pursue endurance goals through running. In the Achilles circle, running is the term used to include any form of forward locomotion, like conventional running, walking, wheeling, or swinging through crutches.

Achilles programs aim to enhance self-esteem and lower barriers to living a fulfilled life, and have served over 150,000 athletes in over 70 chapters around the world, in the U.S. and 24 other countries, since 1983.

Read Fleet Feet’s interview with CEO and President, Emily Glasser, and Achilles athletes Theresa Khayyam and Lupita Hernandez here.

Fleet Feet sat down for a second round of Zoom interviews with three athletes from the Nashville chapter of Achilles who champion accessibility and inclusivity for individuals with disabilities. We talked about their personal journeys in athletics, thoughts on the Americans with Disabilities Act and why inclusivity matters in sports and in life.

Matt Davis in a helmet and his neon Achilles shirt

“Don’t listen to the people who tell you you can’t do things”

“I never noticed I had a disability unless somebody pointed it out,” Davis says. He recalls guidance counselors and doctors who didn’t think his goals were a good idea, such as going to college or racing a marathon. He holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in social work, and has completed 76 marathons across the globe.

“I’m stubborn enough that when someone says I can’t do something, in my head it says try and do it anyway. That’s one of the lessons I’ve learned. Listen to your own voice, not the voice of others.”

Professionally, Davis is the Assistant Director of the Student Accessibility Resource Center at Western Kentucky University, where he helps students learn to push their boundaries and advocate for themselves.

Davis has a long list of racing accomplishments, but he says he is most proud of his opportunity to teach others and watch them achieve their goals, whether they are his students at WKU or the young wheelchair racers he mentors through Achilles Nashville.

Amy Saffell poses with celebrity Jon Stewart before a race

“You never know how far you can go”

Amy Saffell is a wheelchair athlete who grew up with spina bifida in Atlanta, Georgia. With access to an array of adaptive sports, Saffell got involved in tennis, basketball, soccer, horseback riding, rafting and a little bit of running. “Being active was always important to me,” she says. “I would try anything I could get into.”

As an adult, however, she found fewer opportunities to access team sports. After she graduated from Furman University, moved to Nashville, and started working in the music industry, she looked for new ways to stay active. In 2012, she discovered Achilles Nashville and started racing.

Achilles provided the team environment Saffell was looking for. “It’s an individual sport, but it’s a community and a team. They will support you, cheer you on and make sure you get there. That’s why the Achilles family is so important,” she says.

Like Davis, Saffell uses her profession to empower others and pass on the life lessons she has learned. She is the executive director of ABLE Youth, a program that uses adaptive sports to help kids with physical disabilities learn to be independent.

“I see myself in them all the time,” she says. “You never know how far you can go, and I can give them a real example of how far they can come with hard work.”

Sara Solomon uses her handcycle in a race with two guides

“These people have become my family”

Sara Solomon is the assistant director of Achilles Nashville. Her mother, who is also a runner, discovered Achilles International while running in the 2012 Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati, Ohio. The timing was just right. They lived in Nashville, where the chapter was just getting started and organizers were looking for participants.

Solomon, who has cerebral palsy, joined the Achilles Nashville scene using a reverse walker to complete 5K and 10K races, which was not an easy feat. It would often take Solomon three to four hours to complete each race. She later transitioned to a handcycle, which helped her to move faster and pursue longer races. She has since completed marathons and has her sights set on a 50-miler, although the COVID-19 pandemic may delay the completion of that goal.

The Achilles community has become a home for Solomon. “I’m very introverted,” she says. “But over the years, these people have become my family. There’s not someone I couldn't call right now and say, hey, I need you. If they could help, they would do it.”

Matt Davis with two Achilles Nashville teammates

An all-inclusive generation

Exercise and participation in sports can be life-changing. It’s well-established that exercise has crucial physical and mental health benefits, such as improving cardiovascular fitness and relieving stress.

When athletes run, walk, wheel and move forward together, it builds bonds among them. People with disabilities happen to be among the most at-risk for isolation, according to Achilles International CEO Emily Glasser.

It’s crucial to make sports (and life) accessible to all people, no matter how they move or share information. Athletes with disabilities benefit on the physical and social level. And when they participate alongside able-bodied runners, it changes the game for everyone.

“I think participating in races does a lot,” Saffell says. “A lot of times in a race I’m the only one in a chair. I think that automatically dispels a lot of misconceptions that people with disabilities aren’t capable physically, or that they don’t get out, or have to sit at home. So I think participation in sports and specifically races really helps to dispel that. People get to see me as a capable person. I enjoy it and get the health benefits, and I get to help change society little by little, hopefully.”

Sara Solomon says that inclusive sport is important because no one wants to feel left out. “I think being left out is horrible,” she says. “When you look at movements to make things inclusive and equal, that should include people with disabilities.”

Until she came to Achilles, Solomon says she didn’t spend time with other people with disabilities, even in school. “That’s a problem. I think it’s this generation’s job to create an all-encompassing, all-inclusive generation. I have two younger nephews. I don’t want them to grow up without being exposed to people with disabilities and the inclusive lifestyle."

The Americans with Disabilities ACT, or ADA recently reached its 30th anniversary. How has ADA affected the accessibility of our country?

“To me it means the possibility to live a full life,” says Saffell. “I’m old enough to remember when (the ADA) passed and the transformation things have taken in accessibility since then. I was a kid, but I do remember. When I was younger it was a struggle to find access into buildings, or to find a wheelchair-accessible bathroom stall. There were a lot of challenges.”

When it comes to human connection, the concept of inclusion runs deeper than ramps and bathroom stalls. “With non-wheelchair-accessible buildings, you have a separation of people,” Saffell says. “If people with disabilities can’t get into a building, people who don’t have disabilities won’t see them as much. So, they go and make friends, or make decisions on who to hire for a job, for example.”

If you don’t have experience with people with disabilities, you’re less likely to make decisions for inclusion, Saffell says.

“I think we as a society have taken the first step to being accessible,” Solomon says. “But we need a second, third step.” She says a more inclusive building design would have one accessible entrance for everyone rather separate entrances for wheelchair users and the able-bodied.

Davis says having an inclusive mindset means thinking about things from another person’s perspective to be sure their needs are met. He says the overall view goes beyond just accommodations.

“It’s more a feeling of being a part of something,” he says. “I think that’s what drew me to Achilles. Feeling a part of something good not just for myself but for everybody that participates.”

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