Scoring gains for disability rights on and off the track

When Anjali Forber-Pratt was 5, her parents took her to the Boston Marathon, where she watched in amazement as wheelchair racers whizzed by.

“I was blown away. I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” says Forber-Pratt, paralyzed since infancy from the waist down. “It opened a whole new world of possibilities.”

Years later, Forber-Pratt set a wheelchair sprint world record and competed for the United States at two Paralympic Games. She’s now a professor at Vanderbilt University, a disability rights advocate and an inspirational speaker.

Woman with prosthetic leg jumping in a track event (© Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)
Scout Bassett finished 10th in the long jump and fifth in the 100-meter dash in Rio. (© Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)

She and another Paralympian, Scout Bassett, recently shared their insights on how competitive sports can change the lives of people with disabilities.

Audiences gathered at American Spaces — U.S. Embassy–sponsored meeting places — in 10 countries to hear them via videoconference and pose questions about how to pursue their own athletic dreams. Others listened live on the web.

The United States is a model for disability rights, with laws guaranteeing access to public education, buildings and transportation. It’s also a leader in the Paralympic movement.

But becoming a world-class athlete is still replete with challenges, as Forber-Pratt and Bassett attested. Both she and Bassett were born in other countries and adopted by American families.

Bassett, 27, was abandoned as a toddler on the streets of Nanjing, China, after she lost a leg in a chemical fire. She lived in an orphanage until age 7, when a Michigan family rescued her. Bassett practiced soccer with classmates, but was not allowed to play in games. “I was often told I did not belong,” she says. “It was a big mental challenge to overcome.” That changed after she got her first running prosthetic at 14.

Forber-Pratt was born in Kolkata, India, and adopted as an infant by a family from Massachusetts. The disease that paralyzed her struck two months later.

Despite legal protections for those with disabilities, Forber-Pratt at age 14 had to sue public school officials in her hometown for equal accommodations and athletic opportunities. “I actually had to hire the lawyer myself,” she says. She won.

“It taught me a lot about who I am and solidified that confidence in me to go farther and excel academically and athletically,” says Forber-Pratt.

She chose the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, for the opportunity it afforded to train with top wheelchair racers. She became one herself, blazing to a world record in the 200-meter sprint and winning two bronze medals at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.

Retired from racing after the 2012 Games in London, she researches disability issues and examines sport’s role in leadership development and in helping to secure equal rights for disabled people in countries where significant barriers remain.

For her part, Bassett was recruited to run track as a sophomore at the University of California, Los Angeles, after making a name for herself in triathlons. She missed winning a medal in London; she’s training hard for the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

“Just because you have a physical challenge doesn’t mean you aren’t powerful and strong,” she says.