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Paralympic Games serve as important marker of representation and inclusion

For a family in Northeast Ohio, the Paralympics serve as a source of inspiration.
Credit: AP
Maksym Yarovyi of Ukraine carries the flag as the team makes their entrance during the opening ceremony at the 2022 Winter Paralympics, Friday, March 4, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

AKRON, Ohio — The 2022 Paralympic Winter Games are serving as a source of inspiration and representation for those watching, including the Harrison family from Northeast Ohio. 

"It’s a positive role model for our family, we love to watch," said Jenessa Harrison.

Jenessa and her daughter, 17-year-old Madison, both view the elite athletes competing on the global stage as people to look up to.

“They’re pretty much role models,” Madison said. “Just like how a gymnast would be a fan of a gymnast in the Olympics, we get to have [it] the same way, but with the Paralympics.”

Madison is an avid sled hockey player, playing with a league that competes not only through the state, but across the country, winning multiple games and titles along the way. Madison also has cerebral palsy. 

"I have CP (cerebal palsy), that's a thing, I'll have it my whole life. But that doesn't control what goes on in my life," Madison said. "I still go to school, still get an education, still do sports, still hang out with friends." 

On Valentine’s Day, Madison turned 17. It was a day that came as an especially significant celebration for Jenessa, who described Madison’s earliest moments as “touch and go.”

“We were originally told that her prognosis was so poor we didn’t know we would ever be able to take her home,” Jenessa said.

Madison was born three months premature and faced multiple complications, including a brain bleed. She was diagnosed with spastic diplegia cerebral palsy. Madison said her cerebral palsy impacts her balance, endurance, and strength.

“It makes things difficult,” Madison said of cerebral palsy.

However, despite challenges, Madison said in her household, it’s always been about finding a way to reach her goals.

“We’re just as capable, we’re just as smart,” Madison said. “We just have to do it differently and it might take us a little longer.”

“It is a disability, it affects the entire body and it’s something that we constantly have to try to overcome the obstacles that come in our way with,” Jenessa said. “We like to call it differently-abled. It just puts that little bit of a positive spin on what’s going on in her life.”

Madison plays sled hockey through Adaptive Sports Ohio, a sport she holds close to her heart.

“It’s tough, it takes a lot of strength. I’ll be honest, the first few times out there I was like ‘wow, why do I have so many bruises?’ But I honestly love it, it makes me stronger, confidence is a big thing,” she said. “When you’re on the ice, it feels completely different. It’s a rush of adrenaline. Once you get going at that speed, it’s like nothing can stop you."

Sled hockey is one of the sports viewers can watch in the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing, which run through Sunday, March 13. The Paralympic Games bring together athletes with disabilities to compete on the global stage and represent their countries.

Jenessa said the Paralympics are important in changing people’s perspectives on how they view people who are differently-abled.

“These people are actually making something of their lives and showing to the entire world that they are worth something and they are equal and they should be treated as such,” she said.

Dr. Christopher Raffi Najarian at Akron Children’s Hospital has worked with Madison before, and has cerebral palsy himself. He said that the Paralympics serve as an important reminder of what’s possible.

“To see that for other people, my patients, children with disabilities, it’s sort of an example of ‘oh gosh, look at what is possible. I didn’t know that people like me could do things like this,’” he said. “And in that way, I think can be an inspiration or maybe sort of the start to light the fire, to maybe go on their own journey.”

Dr. Najarian also said that not only watching the Paralympics, but participating in sports, can be impactful.

“I think that sports can certainly be a very healthy and important part of many disabled people’s lives, and it is challenging I think to find opportunities to participate in that way for a lot of patients and a lot of people with disabilities,” he said. “Seeing what is possible I think also allows for patients and families to become better advocates, too.”

Dr. Najarian said the added promotion and attention given to the Paralympics in recent years, such as making the games more accessible to watch on TV, have also been a positive.

When asked what she hopes people take away from watching the Paralympics, Madison had a simple, yet powerful message – “that we can do it, too.”

The games run March 4-13 across NBC, Peacock, USA Network, Olympic Channel, at NBCOlympics.com, and on the NBC Sports app.

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