Michael Jeremiasz and Maikel Scheffers are world class athletes and world class champions, having won medals in the paralympics. They have worked incredibly hard in the gym and in global matches to be where they are. Wheelchair tennis, like all sports is very competitive, but the media doesn’t publicize adaptive sports and the 2013 US Open was no exception. It was earth-shattering that the Tennis Channel did pick up a few Wheelchair Tennis finals matches.
More and more since Wheelchair Tennis was included at the US Open 7 years ago, people are becoming aware of who the great athletes are, and they are beginning to watch them. Venus Williams came out to support Lucas Sithole in his finals Quad match (see article) which he won against David Wagoner. Club tennis players go to the semi-finals and finals matches to pick up tips from the wheelchair tennis players.
Watching the Men’s Doubles Champions, Michael Jeremiasz (France) and Maikel Scheffers (Netherlands) beautifully maintain their cool in their match against Gustavo Fernandez (Argentina) and Joachim Bernard (Belgium) I was able to learn a lot. The match was not an easy one. Jeremiasz and Scheffers looked like they would cruise by Fernandez and Bernard as they did in the first set 6-0. But then as happens with underdogs, they come back. Fernandez and Bernard trounced Jeremiasz and Scheffers in the second set 4-6 showing they weren’t going to take it lightly. The final set went to Jeremiasz and Scheffers, 6-3. However, the third set could have gone either way. So it was instructive to see how Jeremiasz and Scheffers stopped their opponents early on in the third and kept up the pressure to win the match.
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After the match I had the opportunity to speak with Jeremiasz who graciously gave me some time for an interview. I asked him about the 2012 Paralympics and the lack of coverage in tennis by the US and the overall slight coverage by US media. In fact Dan James, head Paralympic Coach for the USTA had to bite his tongue, but I finally got it out of him that the US was the only country that did not have wheelchair tennis coverage. James attributed it to the lack of corporate sponsors who would be willing to write the big checks. He said it would eventually happen.
Discussing James’ remarks, Jeremiasz was frank. He said there was no reason for this in the US. The federal government supported disabilities accessibility, employment, entertainment, in every area. He said that the disability community has a powerful voice in the nation and this makes no sense why there is little or no coverage. Jeremiasz was implying that media not covering the events like they should in effect belies the will of the people. In other words the national intent is to give the disabled community an active part in the culture, in the workplace and everywhere. It is because the media is ignoring the will of the people who would watch. As a result, the media does not know how to cover such events, unless it makes them into big inspirational stories. Meanwhile, as Dan James told me earlier in the day, traditional media folks need to get over seeing the wheelchair. Wheelchair tennis is an iteration of tennis, and like any adaptive professional sport has world class athletes. The issue is not with the culture or populace, who support professional adaptive sports and the disabled through our cultural values, it is with old media.
He said this wasn’t the case in France; the culture didn’t readily support those with disabilities. They had nothing like the ADA, and accessibility was much more difficult in France. Apparently, the disability community is not as active or vocal as it is in the US. When I asked why, his response was, “It’s a Latin country.” He elaborated that with the Latin countries, they had a different outlook toward their disabled population, more in the vein that disability is viewed as an infirmity, or that the disabled historically were sheltered and the family took care of them at home. In the past they were rarely seen in public. When I asked about Italy and other countries, he said they were even worse and few laws for accessibility had been mandated like in the US, for example, on public transportation, in public places, etc. Interestingly enough, the French media did a better job of covering the 2012 Paralympic Games than the US, despite the culture’s being “Latin.”
Like Dan James and Esther Vergeer, Michael Jeremiasz did say that things will change slowly in France and the Latin countries, and with the US media coverage, but it would take time. He implied it should be happening in the US now. Of course, money is a factor. However, after speaking to these individuals, I do know that the abled and disabled communities must strongly advocate for the media to champion adaptive sports and cover it. If there is continued advocacy in this direction, perhaps coverage will happen sooner than later.
Like Jeremiasz implied, it is certainly not because the American culture is backward or doesn’t support it. (though we know, for example in the workplace, a lot more can be accomplished) It is because the media is behind the 8-ball. They have three years to get it together for the 2016 Paralympic Games. They should begin right now to make headway to take steps to cover adaptive sports more than ever before. Don’t you think so?