Paralympians describe barriers they face finding 9-to-5 jobs after the games, from stigmas to 'pigeonholing'
- Transitioning from a
sportscareer to a 9-to-5 job can be difficult for anyone, but particularly for disabled athletes.
- Disabled athletes often end up
jobsrelated to sport or their disability, which three-time Paralympian Karolina Wisniewska told Insider is a form of "pigeonholing."
- But the future is brighter. "The
Paralympic Gameshave so much more recognition than they ever have," Wisniewska said.
The struggles of transitioning from a highly paid athletic career to retirement - and searching for the next gig - are well documented. But what if you're not a who's-who of former stars lounging in the Florida sun, like in this Sports Illustrated feature? What if you're an Olympic or Paralympic athlete who can't expect a big payday when you come home from Tokyo?
Former alpine skier and three-time Canadian Paralympian Karolina Wisniewska is the national manager of GamePlan, a program that supports Olympians,
The focus is on employment, education, health, community, and skill building. They're important skills, considering the time commitment sport requires, the employment gaps that can sometimes result from a long career, and the financial reality of just how costly being an athlete - especially a para-athlete - can be.
Some have had minimal job training, with only a select few being able to parlay their athletic talents into college scholarships like their able-bodied counterparts. Disabled athletes are often fighting against the societal perception that living costs for people with disabilities are magically covered when, in fact, the difference between someone with an insurance payout versus an athlete with a congenital disability is an inequity within the sporting world.
Wisniewska represented Canada at the 1998 games in Nagano, the 2002 Games in Salt Lake, and, after a brief concussion-related retirement, the 2010 competition in Vancouver. She also served as an athlete mentor for the 2006 Torino Games and would have gone to Tokyo if it weren't for the pandemic.
She's been around the block, but it hasn't always been easy to exit that block and get back into the 9-to-5 world.
"I often say to my colleagues, 'Man, I wish GamePlan was around when I was retiring," she told Insider. "Both times."
A key piece for all athletes is life after sport. As I reported for FiveThirtyEight, most Paralympians and Olympians are radically underpaid when compared to the average income-earner. That leaves many athletes with no choice but to hold day jobs and scrap to make ends meet.
Wisniewska said her time in the sports world meant that she has seen the opportunities for para-athletes radically develop. The sponsorships and job opportunities of today are a far cry from when she was using nothing but her charisma and a phone line to track down potential supporters.
"I was a world champion; I'm cold calling companies," Wisniewska said, adding that she often had to explain the difference between the
Paralympic funding has, on the whole, seen a marked increase in the last decade. Recent announcements from the Canadian and UK funding bodies mean athletes are supported while playing, but the transition from
While there are a few athletes for whom wider-paying opportunities are available - there were a number of professional wheelchair basketball players during the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, which ended September 5 - those chances are few and far between. Certainly, able-bodied athletes tend to have more funding chances.
According to a 2020 release from the US Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for those with disabilities was 12.6% versus 7.9% for those without disabilities. There's also the fact that federal labor laws allow for subminimum wages for some disabled workers - as low as $3.34 an hour, according to NPR. Though Canadian, Wisniewska said it was a money disparity she saw play out at the highest level of competition in her sport.
"I don't even know how many World Cups I podiumed in," Wisniewska said. "I had a great career. I never made any money and at the time, overall, that wasn't my concern.
"My concern was to ski well, and to do well, and to ski fast, and to represent Canada, and I was perfectly happy doing it. But it does kind of sting when you think, 'Hm, my able-bodied counterpart over here, again, no fault of theirs, is making money when they step on the podium.'"
Many Paralympians end up in job positions related to sport, their disability, and public-speaking gigs, which Wisniewska said is a form of "pigeonholing." Athletes are making employment decisions not because they love an industry, but because they think the barriers may be less.
Essentially, they're hedging their bets against discrimination.
John "Clary" Stubbert made his career, off the court, out of the medical-supply and support industry after putting his time in broadcast radio aside. He spent the '70s and '80s periodically traveling between the Maritimes and Alberta to play wheelchair basketball, living with his teammates, and making ends meet as a bus driver for an accessible transit provider. He said the balance was hard.
"Personally, it was a difficult move for me to make that decision," he told Insider. "But I really did think basketball had become a huge part of my life."
Stubbert went from the student manager of his high-school team to radio broadcaster, to national team athlete, to wheelchair and medical-supply salesman. His career spanned much of North America, numerous companies, all while playing and coaching. He said he thinks athletes with disabilities tend to gravitate toward disability-adjacent jobs like medical supplier or orthotist because it's comfortable.
"It's a natural fit," Stubbert said. "I mean, I think a lot of the success that I had working as a sales rep when I first started out was because I'd meet with individual clients. And they'd say, 'Well, this guy must know what he's talking about, he's using a wheelchair.'"
Stubbert said that just in the last few days, someone came up to him and did the conversational version of patting him on the head and saying, "Nice to see you out." He said that those social stigmas are starting to fade - particularly when compared to his youth - but that they are still in the background for some.
Disabled athletes - even those at the pinnacle of their sport - are faced with many of the same barriers that leave disabled workers in general behind their non-disabled colleagues. How Tokyo success translates to regular paychecks for those competing remains to be seen.
But Wisniewska said while being a Paralympian can give athletes a "platform" or "an edge," many still bump into barriers in their day-to-day lives - whether those barriers be in the workplace or outside of it.
"I think that people with a disability, whether Paralympians or not, I think that certain stigmas and prejudices and preconceived notions still exist out there in society," Wisniewska said. "And someone who's a Paralympian actually, I think, is in a great position, because the Paralympic movement and the Paralympic Games have so much more recognition than they ever have."
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