Ableism consists, in part, of discriminatory behaviours where people without disabilities view themselves in positions of power, superior to individuals with disabilities (Goodley, 2014). In the disability research world, there has recently been a call to adjust ableist rhetoric in physical activity guidelines and promotion (Smith et al., 2021). Current physical activity messaging includes phrases such as ‘take a stand’, and ‘stand up, sit less’. These trends are also present in the social media fitness world, with the almost always present assumptions that everyone has the ability to ‘get fit’, and that being ‘fit’ is associated with a ‘dream body’ (i.e., an ‘able’ body).
“You are able to choose whether you go to the gym today.”
“You are able to choose how hard you push yourself today.”
“You are able to choose what your body looks like and what you’re capable of.”
So how does this relate to running?
I used to think runners were given a bad rep. The eye rolls, the annoyed hand expressions, the refusal to not move over to let runners pass – all of these actions would leave me annoyed and ‘ruin’ the rest of my run. While running is a huge part of my identity, being a graduate student studying sport and mental health in populations with varying disabilities (i.e., physical, sensory, intellectual and developmental) is also a huge part of who I am. Within disability research, it is important to identify who you are within your research (your positionality). I do not identify as having a disability.
For me, running is a daily activity that I am able to choose how and when to participate in. Running is a privilege. Running is an ableist term and form of movement. (Important side note: Don’t confuse this with the assumption that people with disabilities can’t run.)
Not everyone is able to choose to get on a treadmill today.
Not everyone is able to choose how hard they push themselves on a run today.
And in case you haven’t caught on…not everyone is able to choose what their body looks like or its capabilities.
I am a runner and a disability researcher. Until recently, I had never made the connection between these two worlds, which makes it VERY clear how ableist the running world is. While I could continue writing about my experiences – as someone without a disability, it is not my place. Instead, meet Alicia:
Alicia (@aliciagraceofficial) is a 21 year old student who is visually impaired. Alicia and I met at Camp Lake Joe (Canadian National Institute of the Blind’s summer camp). Alicia was a counsellor in training, and I was a volunteer.
When asked about her experiences with runners approaching her on public streets, Alicia said:
“I have experienced runners approaching me from behind, or even from the opposite direction. The rare time I don’t have my cane it’s probably a bit more awkward for them because I don’t see them right away, or even hear them depending where they are. If I hear them coming, I tend to try to move to the side, but often end up getting in the way. That, or when I use my cane sometimes they (runners) just run right by me without saying anything. By the time I notice, I don’t have time to move out of the way and they are right next to me. I tend to use my cane a lot more when out on my own because it gives me more safety and lets others know that I am blind. Although sometimes it doesn’t work.”
Alicia chooses to use her cane for her own safety, but also identified that it flags her invisible disability for others. As a runner who also has experience working with individuals with sensory disabilities (like vision loss and blindness), I am comfortable announcing my presence to others. This is not something that people in the general population are exposed to. This isn’t just for runners! If you are around someone with vision loss, announce you are there and who you are.
In a social setting (like a work party), this could be a “Hi, this is Roxy, how are you?” As a runner, this means calling out: “Hi, sorry, runner approaching on your left. I’ll give you space.”
When Alicia was asked how unannounced runners make her feel, she said:
“Sometimes it catches me off guard because it’s not expected. Especially on the busier roads where I am more focused on listening to the traffic. Next thing I know I feel a rush of air and a person swooshes past me that I literally didn’t see coming. I think for me, if they took the time to either slow down around me or just be mindful of the space around me…maybe even say something to let us know they are coming. That, or just let us know you are either behind us or in front of us and kind of take action and move around me. I have had people coming towards me that just completely stop. It would be better if they went around instead of stopping right in front of me and my cane. That has happened so many times I have lost count…the person is just in front of me. It puts us both in an awkward situation where I don’t want to be the one to move cause the path I’m on is the safest and don’t necessarily want to go off the sidewalk in case of barriers. That, and some people who may not recognize the cane and me having to say, ‘I am blind, please go around me’.”
This reminded me of a conversation with a volunteer with a vision impairment at Camp Lake Joe. Terrain changes are challenging for individuals with vision impairments or blindness. Sighted people, without much thought, adjust gait patterns when switching from pavement to grass, and part of this is a result of the visual cue of the terrain. As a runner, slightly reduce your speed to step on to a lawn or step down onto the road to pass someone with a disability. As runners, we are able to do so without experiencing an environmental barrier.
When asked about whether or not her feelings towards this have been amplified with COVID-19 and wanting people to stay further away, Alicia responded:
“Absolutely! I don’t often get out as much now because of how hard social distancing is with vision loss. The few times I have gone out it has been very hard.”
I am calling up all runners reading this to adjust your perspective when running. While it may feel like you do, you do not deserve space on the sidewalk just as much as anyone out for a walk or wheel. Especially during the pandemic, when being outside is one of the only ways for people to take a break, be active, get out of their living space, and get fresh air. Next time you’re out for a run, whether you’re wearing a mask or not: turn around or cross the street. You never know whether the person in front of you may have an (in)visible disability or chronic illness. Be proactive, be respectful, and be understanding.
Goodley, D. (2014). Dis/ability studies: Theorising disablism and ableism. Routledge.
Smith, B., Mallick, K., Monforte, J., & Foster, C. (2021). Disability, the communication of physical activity and sedentary behaviour, and ableism: a call for inclusive messages.