I was going to email this to Lydia but then she went to bed so she could get up at 4-freakin-thirty (which is really like getting up yesterday IMHO).
Anyway, I thought I'd share the link with all of you since there is no doubt she'll check the forum in the AM before she checks her email.
Have fun! Stay strong! I hear your stories second hand from Lydia and it is inspiring!!!
- DH Lydia227
From the NY Times (I'd post the link but I haven't enough posts to qualify for that honor yet.)
HEBA SAID AHMED pulled her car up to the curb. “No parking here,” a police officer shouted. “But it’s a handicap car,” she said softly, motioning to her wheelchair in the back seat. The officer insisted that she park down the block.
A few minutes later, she had made it from her car, hauled herself on crutches down a flight of steps into a largely empty park when a man tried to stop her. “Members only today,” he said, not even asking if she was a member. She was not, but, exasperated, she said, “I am Heba Said, champion for Egypt.”
The man had no idea what she was talking about, and kept telling her to leave.
Ms. Ahmed, who had polio as a child, won a gold medal in power lifting during the Paralympic Games in Beijing. She broke a world record in her 181-pound weight class, too, lifting 341 pounds. A few days earlier she was being lauded as an Egyptian Hercules.
But the police officer and the park attendant served as familiar reminders that medals and world records were never the point for Ms. Ahmed. “I want to prove to society that I am better than what they think of me,” she said. “In Egypt, they think a handicapped person should just stay in bed.”
It is hard to overstate how different Ms. Ahmed is from many of those around her. It is all about attitude. Egypt is filled with people who face adversity, most often a function of poverty and systemic indifference. It is a class-based society with an unwritten contract that many people believe condemns them to live as they were born, poor and marginalized. There is a pervasive feeling of impotence, a collective belief that fighting back is futile.
But Ms. Ahmed never refers to fate; she talks about choices. She does not talk about obstacles; she talks about challenges.
She gets around in this small Nile Delta city, north of Cairo, in a beaten-up Fiat Tempera operated with hand controls. Her legs are held straight by metal braces. She is 5 feet 1 inch tall, with broad, round shoulders. Her biceps are full, her hands thick. When she walks, she leans forward on two metal crutches, and then swings her legs forward from the waist. She got engaged 10 months ago to a young man she met in school.
“THERE is no such thing as a handicap,” she said. “A handicap is in your thinking, or in your heart.”
The youngest of five children, Ms. Ahmed was raised in a second floor walk-up here. Her father was an accountant for the government. Her mother died when she was 14. Ms. Ahmed had her childhood vaccinations, but she still had polio.
But she said her family never treated her as if she was disabled, so it was a shock when she entered first grade. “I still remember my teacher in first grade telling me to stand up.” A classmate told the teacher that Ms. Ahmed was unable to stand. “He said to me, ‘If you can’t stand you don’t belong here,’ ” she said. “This was the first shock of my life, when I learned that there was something abnormal about me.”
For the next four years, the principal of her school assigned her to a classroom on the fifth floor. Her father had asked to have her put on the first floor. So every day her father carried her to class. When he was sick, she stayed home. She did not get her first wheelchair until the sixth grade, and did not learn to get around on crutches until her second year in college.
“I think there has to be a bit of struggle in your life,” she said. “It strengthens you. It builds character.”
She has had plenty of struggle. Zagazig is a warm, friendly city, but as in the rest of Egypt people tend to look away from disabled people, as if they are invisible. There is no such thing as access for them. The curbs are a foot high. Most buildings are walk-ups, and when there are elevators they are often too small to fit a wheelchair. Ms. Ahmed’s father encouraged her to go to school and to care for herself. She graduated from Zagazig University with a degree in psychology.
When she was a teenager, her father sent her to physical therapy, where one of the aides noticed her extraordinary upper body strength. Ms. Ahmed started training, then competing, and eventually started racking up titles. She was recruited to the national Paralympic team.
“I don’t consider Heba to be handicapped,” said Aly Hassan el-Saadani, head coach of the national weight lifting team. “I deal with her as a normal person and as a champion to the point that she used to change the weights herself when she was training. She would bring the chair next to the bar and change the weights.”
Ms. Ahmed won two African titles. She won a world championship. She won a gold medal during the Paralympics in Athens four years ago, and set a world record in the process. Then she went up a weight class, won a gold in Beijing and set a world record in that weight class, too.
During the Olympic Games, which preceded the Paralympics in China, Egypt did poorly, earning just one bronze medal. But in the Paralympics, Egypt earned 12 medals, including four golds. “Face savers,” read the headline on Al Ahram Weekly, an English-language newspaper. It was an extraordinary achievement coming from a country where physical disabilities are largely seen as props for street begging.
“IN Egypt, crossing the street or getting on the sidewalk for a handicapped person can be a real challenge,” Mr. Saadani said. “In other countries there are ramps, there are ways for them to get on buses. None of this is available here. They used to come to practice standing up in the bus because there were no seats for them. They are the best of what we have here in Egypt.”
After the stellar showing in Beijing, there was hope that even people with physical limitations could be accepted as heroes. The athletes were greeted by Egypt’s first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, and the president’s son Gamal. They were also promised cash rewards for their victories. But then it was back home to Zagazig, and a return to indifference.
“We are hoping through sports to begin to change people’s attitudes,” Ms. Ahmed said one day as she went to pay a visit to her first gym. The workout room is in the side of a stadium, beneath the stands, with rusted bars on the windows and broken weight lifting gear. Rusted barbells were scattered on the floor. They looked like props from a silent movie, long bars with cast iron balls on the ends. Everything was ripped, rusted or worn.
A group of young people rushed around Ms. Ahmed when she walked in. She showed them her gold medal, and one young man placed it around his own neck and posed for a picture. “I feel very satisfied with my sports achievements,” Ms. Ahmed said, indicating that she is ready for marriage and the next steps in her drive to defy expectations and build a full life. “I want to have children and raise them well,” she said. “I want them to be champions, too.”