When an Activist and Athlete get Married

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on November 05, 2020 # Lifestyle

By guest blogger Stephanie Woodward

A week ago, on October 23, 2020, I married my favorite person in the world, but he was not always my favorite person. In fact, when I first saw my fiancée, Ryan Chalmers, three years ago, I really did not like him. I first saw Ryan's face on his resume sitting on my then CEO's desk when I was casually chatting with my CEO about disability rights issues. I was the Director of Advocacy of a disability rights organization at the time, and I saw this paper, picked it up, and asked what kind of person put their picture on their resume. My CEO informed me this guy had interviewed to be the Director of Development. I read Ryan's bio, saw he was a former Paralympic athlete, and immediately tossed the paper and said, "Don't hire him." I did not think hiring an athlete would be good for our organization. I thought athletes had completely different mindsets around disability issues and would not understand the serious disability rights advocacy that we worked on. My CEO hired him anyway.Stephanie and Ryan

When I first met Ryan, he did not make a better impression on me than his resume. He did not seem to have a strong passion for disability rights the way I did, and we clashed a lot. It took me months to warm up to him. Six months, to be precise. Six months after we first met, we were helping at a work event on a Saturday night, and afterward, we decided to grab a drink. We've been together ever since.

Our relationship has been a wild ride as we have grown together and learned from each other. Ryan and I are both from Rochester, New York, but we had never met or heard of each other until we began working together because our lives took us on very separate paths. Ryan was an athlete his entire life. He grew up wheelchair racing and competing in wheelchair basketball tournaments until he eventually went off to college at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and became a Paralympic athlete, competing in London in 2012. Meanwhile, I have never been an athlete. I grew up with a father who urged me to know my rights as a wheelchair user and know the law better than the back of my hand, so I became a lawyer and an activist who regularly protests and gets arrested while fighting for disability rights. Bringing together an athlete and an activist in a relationship is not exactly seamless.

For example, as we've grown together, Ryan has explained to me that in the world of elite athleticism, the mentality is "I can do it, and I can teach others how to do it" when encountering access barriers, whereas, in the world of disability rights activism, the mentality is "access for all." This means when Ryan sees something that is not accessible, but he can personally navigate, it does not faze him. He would just navigate the inaccessible obstacle and move on. However, when I saw the same exact obstacle – whether or not I could personally navigate it – I will be sure to address it. In fact, I would likely email the owner of whatever entity has the obstacle, inform them that they are inaccessible, inform them of the law, inform them of how to become accessible, and if they did not respond, I would escalate the issue and possibly protest. This is something that Ryan and I used to disagree about. He thought I was being unnecessarily combative. I thought that he was irresponsible and selfish for not using his voice and platform to address our community's accessibility issues.

It has taken us years of conversation and understanding to learn that we are both right. Ryan is right that I do not need to address every inaccessibility issue that I encounter because, as a form of self-care, I need to take a break sometimes. And I am right that Ryan needs to use his voice and platform more to address inaccessibility to help remove these barriers in our community so that other people with disabilities do not have to encounter these barriers after us.

The greatest part of our relationship is that we truly are so different, and in learning about each other's perspectives, we make each other better people. I know that Ryan has helped me become more patient, kinder, and even a bit athletic! Ryan tells me that I have helped him more selfless, ambitious, and more of a critical thinker. Our relationship has helped us see that - with a little patience - so much good can come of activists and athletes working together. We are so excited for what the future has in store for us and what we can continue to accomplish together as a married couple.

Stephanie Woodward is an attorney who is passionate about seeking justice for marginalized communities - and has an arrest record to show for it. As a proud disabled woman and civil rights activist, Stephanie is committed to making the law work for all oppressed people. She's also a proud cat mom and recently pushed her first marathon. Follow her on Twitter.