The beginning of the road to the 2024 Paris Paralympics
This is the true story of how Sheri Byrne-Haber got started in archery begins with a story of workplace discrimination. It ends with a conflict between herself - a wheelchair-using archer - a non-disabled archer, and the beginning of the road to the 2024 Paris Paralympics.
The road to the 2024 Paris Paralympics begins with ableism, discrimination and archery
A text-book example of an inaccessible meeting room
I worked for a company that was doing remote work long before the pandemic. My team was about two dozen individuals distributed across Austin, Boston, Silicon Valley, Portland, Oregon, Bulgaria, Armenia, India, and China. We had quarterly gatherings in Palo Alto to help improve collaboration. The previous quarterly corporate event, a gathering at a winery, had been an unmitigated access disaster.
The room the meeting was held in was next to impossible to get to by wheelchair unless you knew the super-secret unlabeled path. The room itself was totally crammed with oversized furniture. Nobody involved with the event planning had bothered to check on wheelchair access. Because the event was in the mountains, there was no way to reach anyone by cell phone for me to get help once I had arrived.
By the time I found a winery employee to help me get to the event, people were already distributed across inaccessible furniture playing board games. As people looked uncomfortably at each other, asking silently with their eyes, "who is going to inconvenience themselves so Sheri can participate?" I answered the question for them by glaring angrily at my boss, downing my glass of fairly decent red wine, and leaving less than five minutes after I arrived.
Whether or not a team event is accessible shouldn't be left to a vote
Responsibility for organizing this quarter's event fell to Mike. "Mike, whatever you do, PLEASE make sure the event is wheelchair accessible this time," I begged via a private Slack message. "Sure, Sharon," he replied, "I get it," he continued, "you know Becky insisted on having the last event at the winery; that wasn't me."
Mike proceeded to put up a poll in the team Slack channel to vote on the activities, some of which were definitely *not* accessible. However, I had complained loudly enough after the previous event that no one dared vote for the "escape room," not even the person who anonymously nominated it.
Archery won overwhelmingly. One of my two dozen co-workers was from Mongolia, and another was from South Korea. Even though both teammates disclaimed any special training or ethnic superiority, it was totally obvious after the first round that the rest of us were competing for third place.
The indoor range was a glorified oversized series of storage units, long and narrow, with targets at the end. It was located in Palo Alto, in an industrial section down by the freeway with streets clogged with campers containing occupants referred to as "Google refugees." "Those targets at the end are for the advanced archers," said Peter, the range master, as he pushed out closer wheeled targets. Then he started to assess the group for right-hand/left-hand dominance.
"Do you have any archery experience?" he asked me when it was my turn. "Not for a while," I said, not really wanting to admit how many years "a while" was.
"Recurve or compound?" he asked. "I have never shot a compound bow," I told Peter. "You should give it a try," he said. "Compound bows work much better for people who are short or seated since they are way more compact."
My favorite thing about Peter was his matter-of-fact way of approaching my disability. He didn't treat me like I was special, just that I had some stuff I needed to work around. That fits well with how I thought of myself.
My upper body strength was crap. The spinal curvatures seriously inhibited my range of motion, and I had avoided exercising for as long as I could remember. I had dislocated my shoulder about 18 months earlier and never completed physical therapy. Even with the assist the compound bow draw weight provided, I could barely draw the string back to the anchor point. Being almost six feet tall meant the childrens' bows, which required less upper body strength, were not a viable option. My arms were just way too long.
We started shooting at 10 feet, then went to five yards and then ten. Peter brought out balloons when our arrows started to hit the target more reliably. The look on everyone's faces when they realized that I was the one breaking the most balloons was priceless. I was one of the last to leave, staying behind to talk to Peter about what type of equipment I should buy and where I should go to get it.
Buying a Matthews Mission compound bow
The weekend after the work team archery event, I went to a local archery shop in Pacifica and ordered my own compound bow. It was a Matthews Mission, which was literally the only viable option because it was the solitary bow that could handle my super long arms while simultaneously being shootable while exerting only 20 pounds of peak draw weight. My bow was set to 20.4 pounds, to be exact. I was very proud of that extra .4 pounds because it meant I wasn't at the bare minimum.
The overwhelming desire to not finish last or be the worst at something was a common theme throughout my life. My draw length was 29 ½ inches because that was as long as you could go on a Matthews Mission. "When you upgrade, you'll probably want a longer draw length," said Randy, the guy at the archery store who sold me the bow.
Randy had back problems from a military parachuting injury and definitely understood the needs of adaptive archers. Then he asked me what I thought was a very strange question: "what color do you want?"
It turns out archers like to color coordinate all their equipment and arrow fletchings. I thought about it for a moment and said, "Why not blue, the color of the universal disability icon." "Makes sense," he replied, and from that point going forward, I chose blue equipment whenever I could.
My first official archery tournaments
When I competed in my first official archery tournament, I begged the organizers not to set up a paralympic division just for me. I didn't want to be singled out, and I really didn't expect to do very well. I was very proud of my fourth out of sixth place score that I would have gotten if they had grouped me with the non-wheelchair using competitors. The "first out of one" participation medal in the para division, not so much.
My second archery competition was the California State Seniors Archery Tournament three months later. As was my usual approach to anything where parking was an issue, I got there bright and early to get the best parking space, which isn't always one of the accessible blue parking spaces, without inconveniencing anyone. I stayed in my car for a while "talking" with my Chief Technology Officer at work by Slack about a project while I was waiting for others to show up.
It was the end of September, one of those days with a 50+ degree swing between the low and the high temperatures. I started the day in three layers of clothing and ended it in one, topped off by a generous dose of sunscreen and an SPF 50 hat. I wished I had prescription sunglasses and made a mental note to add that to my list of pending archery-related expenditures.
Archery websites and registration forms are notoriously user-unfriendly experiences, which is depressing on its own but even more depressing when you consider that the Paralympics has an entire category for visually impaired archers who most likely could not register themselves for events.
I have yet to see one that is actually accessible to people who use assistive technology. That made it difficult for me to figure out from the electronic files on the website which target I was on or who I was shooting with.
Therefore, the first thing I did after setting up my chair was to find Donna, who was running the tournament. She told me to set up on target eight, so I grabbed my gear and wheeled off to my assigned spot.
Because Paralympic certification takes forever, I had been trying to register in the classes for athletes without disabilities for all my tournaments. The first tournament didn't let me do that, but this one didn't care. At the end of the day, good archers aren't really competing against others. Archery is about competing against yourself. Set a goal, see if you can beat the goal, and then set a newer, more difficult goal.
Discrimination and archery
A gentleman setting up on target seven next to me informed me authoritatively, "you aren't supposed to be here." To which I replied, "Huh?" He confused me because I went where Donna had instructed me to go. "All the disabled people are on target one. So you stay out of our way." he insisted. "You are a distraction," he finished. "I'm not shooting in a para division, but I'll double-check," I replied.
I went back to Donna, who told me that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, but she told me to tell "Mr. Grumpy," as she referred to him, that if he wanted to be moved, he could request to be assigned to a different target.
She also offered me some duct tape to keep my wheelchair bumper from rattling as I went back and forth to the target on the gravel parking lot and a piece of cardboard that the 1.2-meter targets had been shipped on to make it easier to turn circles behind the shooting line. Indeed, Mr. Grumpy must have asked to be assigned to a new target because he moved several spots away from me, sharing a target with someone I knew named John. I felt bad for John.
Because this tournament was on a parking lot surface and not grass, my wheelchair battery life held out much better than the previous competition, even though the number of shots and distances were identical. I shot 27 points better than I had shot at the previous competition and won the competition for my age group, shooting from a wheelchair against all non-disabled competitors.
I found out my friend John's score was seventeen points lower than mine. I asked John to let me secretly take a peek at the score sheet and saw that he had shot two points better than Mr. Grumpy. By doing the math, I figured that I had beat Mr. Grumpy by nineteen points, which made me even happier than winning the competition. That score got me a ticket to nationals next May in Fort Lauderdale. Distract that, Mr. Grumpy, I thought as they handed me a first-place medal that actually meant something to me.
Maybe getting to the 2024 Paris Summer Paralympics isn't a pipe dream
I excitedly texted pictures of my medal to co-workers and family. And then it began to dawn on me. Maybe getting to the 2024 Paris Summer Paralympics wasn't a pipe dream. I googled the scores from the US and Canadian teams who went going to Tokyo in 2021. 57 more points, and I would be right up there with them.
Sheri Byrne-Haber is a values based engineering, accessibility, and inclusion leader best known for establishing accessibility programs at McDonald's and VMware and for her award winning blog on disability inclusion and accessibility.