“Using no way as a way, using no limitations as a limitation.” – Bruce Lee

Jordan Nicholson. Courtesy Jordan Nicholson.

With the end of the Vancouver Olympics freshly imprinted in our collective memory, not many people know that the 2010 Winter Paralympics are about to begin in those very same Vancouver and Whistler venues.

From March 12th to the 21st, 650 physically and visually-disabled participants from 45 countries compete for medals and demonstrate to a worldwide audience that a “disability” doesn’t stop one from achieving glory.

For University of Washington student Jordan Nicholson, it’s just a matter of putting yourself out there, finding a passion, and following it. Nicholson has Thrombocytopenia with Absent Radius (TAR) syndrome, a condition that causes his arms to be very short.

Despite his striking dissimilarity, Nicholson thrives as a photographer, a skateboarder, an artist, and a designer. His talent for photography has earned him a job shooting for the UW’s student newspaper, The Daily, and his reputation has spread through the online photography community, Flickr. Recently his activities include launching his own fashion line called Megalodon and throwing a benefit concert with Seattle hip hop group the Blue Scholars for Relay for Life and Haiti victims. And he’s not going to stop there: his goal is to become an art teacher and write a children’s book.

Born into a multi-racial Black and Chinese family, Nicholson says, “I never didn’t fit in.” Never dwelling too much on his physical differences, Nicholson didn’t shy away from putting himself out there. He found that once people get to know him, they look past the obvious and it isn’t really an issue.

“I’m just Jordan,” he says. His personal success is remarkable by any standard, but especially as a young multi-racial minority with a physical difference.

According to the Center for Disease Control’s Disability and Health Team, 16.8 million of the 49.7 million Americans with disabling conditions are ethnic and racial minorities. When over a third of all persons living with disabilities are minorities, the CDC recognizes that this group is in “double jeopardy … because of persistent racial and ethnic health disparities, cultural distinctions, prejudice, discrimination, and economic barriers that are coupled with environmental and access issues.”

Kim Nguyen contends that being disabled, a minority, and a woman is a triple whammy. When Nguyen sees Equal Opportunity Employers state that they provide equal opportunity regardless or race, gender, or disability – “Oh look,” she says, “I fit three of them!”

Nguyen is a Vietnamese American woman who doctors diagnosed with polio when she was two. Growing up in Hawaii she had surgeries, casts, and braces but now as an adult her condition has stabilized and she doesn’t need a wheelchair or braces. She does however, walk with a notable limp. Her disability affects anything physical; the first challenge is simply walking. Climbing stairs and walking the length of a downtown block is a challenge for Nguyen.

“Sometimes, “says Nguyen, “it’s kind of a bummer when I’m reminded that I’m limited.”

Activities like playing sports, grabbing lunch with co-workers at a shop a couple of blocks away, or even playing Wii Fit when it says she is balancing incorrectly on her bad leg is yet another reminder. Ninety-five percent of the time, Nguyen says she feels like social situations put her on the spot, although people she has known for years don’t take her disability into consideration. Most of the time, she says, “the burden is on me, and it gets old sometimes.”

Her experience isn’t too surprising in our individualistic society. But don’t be fooled; Nguyen worked around her limitations and got her undergraduate degree in sociology at Whitman College and her Master’s in Social Work from the University of Washington. She manages a health coalition today.

Individuals with disabilities can have limitations, but one thing to consider is how much of those limitations are socially-constructed? Just as race is socially constructed, the way society views and treats people with physical impairments may create an inequitable burden for them to bear.

Until mainstream media, education, and our communities become more inclusive and aware, people like Nguyen and Nicholson will continue having confidence and a strong sense of self to guide them to their own sense of personal glory.

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