Children With Disabilities Should Go for the Gold in Life

If we needed additional evidence, Brad Snyder’s story makes it perfectly clear that just because you’re a child with a disability, you don’t have to settle for second place.

An American swimmer on the United States Paralympic team, Snyder graduated from the Naval Academy and went to Afghanistan to serve his country. In September 2011, a roadside bomb exploded in his face and cost him his eyesight. But he still managed to find the finish line first, winning two gold medals in the summer of 2012 at the London Paralympic Games. And, among fully blind swimmers, Snyder is currently the best in the world for the 100-meter and 400-meter freestyle events. His story can be found at

The London Paralympics – parallel to the London Olympics, and for people with physical disabilities – were extremely competitive, featuring a host of world champions like Snyder.

Indeed, the recent Paralympics in London were the largest ever, with 4,200 athletes from 164 countries competing in 503 events in 20 sports. Another key success metric: some 2.3 million tickets – the most ever – were sold.

Some of the athletes at the London Paralympics were in wheelchairs, some were wholly or partially blind, some had three, two, one or no limbs, some had dwarfism, some had intellectual deficits, some had complex coordination and muscle-control problems, and some had multi-symptom conditions like multiple sclerosis.

But the most important thing about the Paralympics was that it focused on people who were competing to win – it wasn’t about their disabilities.

And that’s a vital message that any child with a disability needs to internalize. To put it simply and bluntly: You can do it; you can do anything.

I’ve seen this indomitable will triumph time and time again – in London, and in Seattle.

As an assistant coach for the U.S. Paralympic swimming team in London, I worked with all of the 34 swimmers to help maximize their performance. Meanwhile, back home at Seattle Children’s, where I’ve been for 33 years, I’m a nurse in the Rehab / Neuromuscular Clinic. I basically case manage patients in our program with traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, progressive neuromuscular diseases, Cerebral Palsy and arthrogryposis.

The opening ceremonies for the London Paralympics totally reinforced the “take no prisoners” spirit I mentioned above.

One of the highlights of that evening was the attendance of physicist Stephen Hawking, who was given two years to live in 1963 after he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease.

“The Paralympic Games is about transforming our perception of the world. We are all different, there is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being, but we share the same human spirit,” said Hawking from his wheelchair, speaking through his famous computerized voice system for communication. “What is important is that we have the ability to create … however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.”

None of this would have been possible without a man named Sir Ludwig Guttmann, a Jewish neurosurgeon who fled Nazi Germany, pioneered athletic competition as therapy for patients with spinal injuries, and organized an archery competition for 16 patients at Britain’s Stoke Mandeville hospital in 1948, the year that London hosted the first Olympics after World War II. Guttmann’s initial efforts led to the first full-scale Paralympics in 1960, in Rome, and in 1964, in Tokyo.

Obviously, Ludwig Guttmann, who died in 1980, never knew Brad Synder, who was born in 1984. But, when it comes to overcoming disabilities, the two share the same toughness and tenacity.

“I know there are a lot of guys out there, guys and girls, who are struggling with a tough hand,” said Snyder this past summer. “And, hopefully, my success at the Paralympics can reach out to those people and say, ‘Hey, there is a way forward; there is something you can go out and do that will give you that relevance and success again.’ ”

To paraphrase Snyder’s words, in the end, there’s always a way forward – and children with disabilities must find it in order to fulfill their rich potential and ultimate destiny.

D. “Kiko” VanZandt is a nurse with the Rehabilitation Medicine team and the Neuromuscular Clinic at Seattle Children’s Hospital. She is also an Assistant Coach for the U.S. Paralympic Swimming Team.