Tatyana McFadden, a 20-time Paralympic medalist, has used her platform to improve the quality of life for individuals with disabilities. McFadden, 34, recently discussed her struggles as a high school student athlete, what compelled her to help establish Tatyana’s Law and her goals for the 2024 Paris Games.
Thursday marks the 12th celebration of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, an event that works to bring change for digital access and inclusion for people with disabilities.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
OlympicTalk: How important is Global Accessibility Awareness Day to you, and what does accessibility and representation mean to you?
Tatyana McFadden: I live it every single day. It shouldn’t be just a one-day thing. We should celebrate accessibility and global awareness every single day. As soon as I leave my house, I have to learn how to adapt right away.
Whether it’s going into a store or restaurant or hotel or into a cab or traveling on the airplane and getting off the airplane — a majority of people don’t think about how people with disabilities do those things. As an elite athlete, I think it’s so important to use my voice and to share the experiences that I have gone through and how we can make this world a better place. I’m speaking on behalf of those who don’t have a platform or for those who are unable to speak up. Especially if we’re going to be hosting the Games in LA in 2028. It’s good to get a start on it.
Do you remember the day you received your first wheelchair?
McFadden: I received my very first wheelchair when I first came over to the U.S. I was adopted at age 6 from Russia. It was a little red wheelchair that was waiting for me in the United States at my new home. It was like freedom for me. I got in it, and I was pushing up and down the street so fast, doing wheelies.
I spent my first six years in a Russian orphanage, and I didn’t have any medical treatment, so I was walking on my arms and my hands and spinning just inches above the floor. I didn’t have a wheelchair.
What is the process of getting a wheelchair like today? What is the cost and maintenance?
McFadden: Getting a wheelchair is really hard in the United States. I’m actually still currently waiting for my new one. It’s going to take almost a year to get it, and it shouldn’t be like that for people with disabilities. We should be able to have access to wheelchairs very quickly, much more quickly than we can get access to guns, right? This is my mobility, and it’s my legs. I have to use it every single day. Otherwise, I can’t do my job, and other people can’t do theirs, either, if they don’t have access.
The cost is pretty expensive, and I’m really fortunate to have really good healthcare under the USOPC. A manual chair like mine would probably cost around $10,000 for everything. It’s very tough if you don’t have insurance, and if you have a person with a disability that needs an electric wheelchair, or any more assistance on that wheelchair, the cost would be a lot more. I hope we can get the cost down eventually, but with the cost it’s very hard to get an accessible wheelchair. So we don’t get a new wheelchair every year. You normally have to wait four to six years to get a new one or to qualify for the insurance.
I want to talk about “Tatyana’s Law,” federal legislation ensuring equal access to school activities for students with disabilities. A lot of people don’t know your journey leading up to it. The booing you experienced on the track. Can you talk about some of the difficulties you faced as a high school athlete?
McFadden: Having my lawsuit be in high school was very, very hard. I mean, I came off such a high competing in Athens in 2004 for my very first Games (at age 15). I came home with a silver and bronze medal, and all I wanted to do was be on that high school track team. Being denied as the only female wheelchair racer was very difficult. I was denied a uniform, access and the right to race alongside others at the high school track meets. I even had to take a separate bus, which I absolutely hated. I normally was the only one on the bus. Sometimes friends rode with me.
High school is hard enough anyway. You’re going through a lot of transitions. Emotionally, it was very difficult, especially going into every single track meet and having parents and athletes boo at you, having your former teammates write letters to the Baltimore Sun, saying, “Well, there’s sports for her own kind. Why does she need to be participate in high school sports?”
I thought to myself, I’m an elite athlete already. I came home with a silver and bronze medal from the Athens Games, I can use my voice. I have a younger sister, Hannah, who is also a wheelchair racer, and I knew that she wanted to participate in in high school track someday. At that point, we were teaching discrimination right there in Maryland in Howard County, that it was OK to segregate people with disabilities.
Think about for your future employers. They were being taught that it’s OK, we don’t have to include that person because they’re different than us. We have to remember that people with disabilities are part of every culture, every subculture, and so we were teaching really, really bad things during that time. That’s why I wanted to go through with the lawsuit. I was going through it for the right cause, to help others so the people who came after me have the right to play any sport that they want. And this school has to allow that. We’re not talking about the Olympics or the Paralympics here. We’re just talking high school sports. Having that inclusion is very important. I felt like it set up a very beautiful foundation for my career and my purpose and my why in sports.
Your mom, Deborah, is a trailblazer herself, helping to write the Americans with Disabilities Act. What does she mean to you, and what lessons have you learned from her?
McFadden: My mom is my rock. Everything that I go through in sports and especially what I went through in high school, she knew the steps. She knew that a phone call to the school wasn’t going to be enough. She knew that this was going to be very tough on me. She knew that there was going to be a lot of negative noise around it, especially with what my mom went through with her paralysis.
She was disabled in college from the waist up, so she couldn’t write exams. The University of Maryland almost didn’t let her graduate because she couldn’t write the exam. She had to do it orally and verbalize her answers. That wasn’t the rule, so she had to fight for the right to take her exam and graduate.
My mom is the perfect example with everything that she went through. She understood perfectly what I was going through. Even in my career, when I’m fighting for equal rights in the Paralympic world, or in the marathon circuit, or just for people with disabilities in our own communities. It’s really nice to be able to talk to her about it and say, “Well, what can we do? What are the next steps?”
Paris 2024 would be your seventh Paralympic Games. What are you most excited for, and how do you think the Games will be different this time around?
McFadden: I am two medals away from beating my idol Chantal Petitclerc, who is a Canadian Paralympic wheelchair racer. She’s won 21 Paralympic medals. It’s taken me 20 years to chase her career and amazing record.
What do you think sets the Paralympics and Paralympic Movement apart from any other sporting event?
McFadden: When you watch the Paralympics, you’re going to be in awe. When you watch wheelchair racing, its almost like NASCAR. There’s so much technicality behind it and a little bit of science behind it.
The majority of the public can’t do what we do, so I think that’s even cooler. When I talk about wheelchair racing, I say, pretend you’re running with an 18- to 20-pound weight belt around you and go for a run. Try to do the 100m. Try to do a marathon and feel like what it’s like wearing that. You’ll be even more impressed that we do it with a much smaller group of muscles.
Do you think the Paralympic Movement represents its athletes well? Is it inclusive enough? If not, what changes do you think need to be made?
McFadden: I think that we are moving. I remember when I started at the Paralympic Games in 2004, we were still a separate organization from the Olympics in the U.S. The name wasn’t combined to make the USOPC. When I finished competing at the Athens Games and came back home, it wasn’t celebrated. No one even knew that I left for the Paralympics. So I thought, wow, maybe the Paralympics isn’t important. Maybe it’s not elite or prestigious like the Olympics are. I had to do that research and figure out what parallel are we missing here in the United States?
One, it’s understanding disability. Second, it’s understanding the Paralympics and how it’s parallel to the Olympics. I think most people miss that. I also think it’s showing and educating.
I think when we give people the chance to see the Paralympics, they’ll want to learn more about the athletes. You don’t know who else is watching, so if that youth has a disability, but they never knew about Paralympic sport, or they never knew they could get involved, it creates that educational piece for them as well.
Do you have a medal or Paralympic memory that means the most to you?
McFadden: Winning my first gold in 2012 was pretty special because in Athens I didn’t do it, and in Beijing I wasn’t able to. I was a silver and bronze girl, so winning my first gold, in my first event the 400m, was pretty special. Also in Rio, when we got the “McSweep” in the 1500m and the 5000m with my teammates Amanda McGrory and Chelsea McClammer.
You’ve said, “Life isn’t about what you don’t have. It’s about what you do with the gifts you’re given.” You’ve already made such an incredible impact. What else do you want to do?
McFadden: I want to continue to increase that impact. I feel like now we’ve woken up the world a little bit. We have more impact to go and more of a difference to make. My goal is to go down the street here in New York City and for someone to go, “Wow, are you Paralympic athlete?” just like they do in Europe where they love Paralympians.
How has the University of Illinois impacted your training? What is the program like for Paralympic athletes?
McFadden: I was very fortunate to be part of the University of Illinois. Going there for undergrad and my grad school program set up my career absolutely amazing and beautifully. Being able to train with 20 other athletes and having that advice right there, especially coming in as a freshman and looking at your elders. That sense of community is really important. There’s no other program like that besides Switzerland.
Oftentimes, people with disabilities don’t have equal access to an education or the accessibility to that education. The school is accessible — dormitories, your classes, getting on the buses. It was something I didn’t have to worry about while getting my degree.
I now have switched gears, and I have my own private coach. I’m looking forward to that journey as well. I still have a great relationship with Adam Bleakney and the University of Illinois.
Is there anything else you want people to know about accessibility or the Paralympic movement?
McFadden: I’m glad that we’re having open discussions. I think the more open discussions that we have, and the more vulnerable that we can be, the more we can help our own communities and help people with disabilities. Whether it’s from the youth all the way to adulthood, making sure they know about and have access to these resources. They can go to the USParalympics.org and research youth groups that are in their own area. They can find grants that they can apply for, for a wheelchair and sporting equipment.