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Until a few weeks ago, Paralympic Athletes earned only 1/5th the amount of money for winning a medal, compared to their Team USA counterparts. On this episode, Jay uncovers the story behind this historic fight for equality and justice. Jay is joined by Paralympian Jenny Sichel and Link20 Advocacy Coordinator, Meir Zimmerman, who provide an exclusive insight into the successful efforts of Paralympian athletes to be valued as equal.
Jenny Sichel is a 2016 Paralympic silver medalist and four time World Rowing silver medalist. She has represented the USA for seven years as the coxswain for the Para Rowing Mixed 4+ and is currently in training for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games. Outside of competition, Jenny is a Link20 Intern at the Ruderman Family Foundation, where she advocates for disability rights and inclusion.
Meir Zimmerman is the Link20 & Advocacy Coordinator at The Ruderman Family Foundation and an avid disability rights activist.
Jay Ruderman: On today’s show, why, until just a few weeks ago, did Paralympic athletes earn only 1/5th the amount of money for winning a medal, compared to their Team USA counterparts?
Announcer: ALL INCLUSIVE. A podcast on inclusion, innovation and social justice, with Jay Ruderman.
Jay Ruderman: Welcome to ALL INCLUSIVE, a podcast on inclusion, innovation and social justice. I’m Jay Ruderman, your host. A few weeks ago, the US Olympic committee board finally voted to pay Olympians and Paralympian’s equally. On today’s show, we’ll go behind the scenes on what led to this historic decision. Joining me today, is Jenny Sichel. She’s a Paralympic silver medalist, a four time world silver medalist. Welcome to the show Jenny.
Jenny Sichel: Thank you.
Jay Ruderman:How did you make the transition to becoming a member of the Paralympic team?
Jenny Sichel: That was actually a little, bit random, but a little, bit of dedication and hard work. I was at a race, and happened to accost the National team coach at the time. After the race, she was like, “Wow. That was really good.” No clue who she was. It ended up a couple weeks later, I got a call from her saying, “Hey. You should come try out for the team.” This was in 2010. That was when I made my first national team Para National team.
Jay Ruderman: Michael Phelps, the most successful Olympian athlete of all time, told CNN that he practices every single day in the pool for three to six hours. In addition, he spends four to five days working out, every week out of the pool. Maybe you can tell the audience a little, bit about what is involved in your daily schedule, in terms of training for the Paralympics.
Jenny Sichel: Yeah. Depending on the time of year … We have our on seasons and our off seasons. Generally, we train two to three times a day, six days a week with the seventh day being more of an active recovery. Those two to three times a day, will include going out on the water once or twice, for about two hours or so. The third time is generally an indoor weight session, which encompasses about an hour and a half.
Jay Ruderman: Do you ever encounter a stigma that Paralympic athletes are not athletes on the same level as Olympic athletes?
Jenny Sichel: Absolutely. I think every day, we think about that. We think about, sort of, the view that others have of Paralympic athletes, as in, they’re a charity, or they’re inspirational for even getting up off their couch, because they have some type of disability. In reality, Paralympic athletes are athletes.
Jay Ruderman: Can you explain to the audience this issue of equal medal payout.
Jenny Sichel: Basically, what was happening was, for every medal, gold, silver or bronze, that an athlete would earn at the Olympics or Paralympics, the athlete would get some type of medal payout. What I found out, when I made the team in 2016, and I was talking with my teammates that Paralympians only were getting 1/5th of the amount that the Olympians were getting. I believe the Olympians were getting 37,500 for a gold medal, whereas the Paralympians were getting 7,500.
Jay Ruderman: How did you first find out about the disparity of payout for medals?
Jenny Sichel: The first time I found out about it was back in 2010, when I first made the team. Some of the athletes were talking. There were murmurs about, “Oh, no, we don’t get an equal payout,” because we were talking about 2012 and upcoming Paralympics at the time. I was like, “I don’t believe that.” The US is so good with kind of equality amongst all different branches of diversity. This can’t be a thing. And then, come 2016, we win the silver medal and I find out, I’m only getting 3500.
Jay Ruderman: What would an Olympian, who won the silver medal in rowing get?
Jenny Sichel: I believe they got 15,000.
Jay Ruderman: Okay. When you found that out, what was your initial reaction? What was the reaction of your teammates?
Jenny Sichel: I think the pretty obvious answer to that is, we need to equalize the payout for the medals. You go from and you try to figure out how are we going to accomplish this? For me, what I tried to do, was talk to a lot of people about it, and really try to raise awareness. I went to an employee of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which I had been associated with prior to, because of a group called, Link 20. Together, we took this issue to this Link 20 group, which is a group of younger advocates for the disability community to make sure that people with disabilities are getting their issues answered, and having a say in things. We brought this issue to them and said, “Is this something that we should address?”
Jay Ruderman: What steps were taken at that point?
Jenny Sichel: At that point, a letter was sent to the US Olympic Committee, signed by the Link 20 members. We were also able to put out a promotional video on social media, through Link 20, that got over 200,000 views.
Jay Ruderman: What response did you get from the US Olympic Committee?
Jenny Sichel: Initially, we were told that they heard our voices, and that this equal medal payout would take a while. There were going to be steps taken, as in levels of payout, increasing the Paralympic payout slowly, to eventually equal the Olympic payout. And then, I would say a couple weeks ago, we got the news that all of, the payouts were gonna be the same. I believe I was actually at a World Championship’s at the time. I got the news over email.
Jay Ruderman: Did you talk to your fellow teammates or other Paralympians?
Jenny Sichel: We were all were kind of taken aback that it happened so suddenly. We went to the other athletes that we were training with at the world championships and said, “Hey. We’re equal on this front.”
Jay Ruderman: Let’s talk about the impact that this huge win, which happened very quickly … How does that impact society’s view of people with disabilities?
Jenny Sichel: The Olympics is such a huge part of US culture, that when something shifts, with the US Olympic committee, people take notice. By having the public know about this disparity that occurred, and then having the US Olympic committee, fix the disparity, it sends a huge message to the population.
Jay Ruderman: What about any issues that still need to be tackled?
Jenny Sichel: I think, right now it’s one step at a time. I’m really excited about the equal medal payout. I think the next issue that needs to be tackled is the equal media coverage for the Paralympics.
Jay Ruderman: Is there … Since you’re a member of Link 20, is there a plan to grow this?
Jenny Sichel: There’s definitely a plan to grow it and make it this independent entity.
Jay Ruderman: How does someone … Let’s say someone listening to the show, wants to become an advocate, how do they connect with Link 20?
Jenny Sichel: You can go onto the Facebook page, which is a huge part of Link 20. @Link20USA, or you can go on email and email, firstname.lastname@example.org. I encourage everybody to come be a part of Link 20, and work together to create a change. I want everybody to know that if you have any questions about the Paralympic community, about the Olympic community, about disability advocacy or rights, please feel free to reach out and feel free to ask on Twitter, Instagram. My handle is @JSICHROCKIN.
Jay Ruderman: I commend you on this huge victory.
Jenny Sichel: Thank you very much Jay.
Announcer: You’re listening to ALL INCLUSIVE with Jay Ruderman. You can learn more, view the show notes, and transcripts at Rudermanfoundation.org/allinclusive.
Jay Ruderman: Please remember to subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you are listening. Joining us now, is Meir Zimmerman, the advocacy coordinator at the Ruderman Family Foundation. First of all Meir, what is Link 20? What does it stand for?
Meir Zimmerman: Link 20 was a project started by the Ruderman Family Foundation. Link 20 came from the idea of linking the 20% of the population with disabilities to the rest of the population and vice versa. The idea behind Link 20 is really to create a, grassroots, social justice movement around disability inclusion. Link 20 is made up of hundreds of young advocates with and without disabilities that are passionate about social justice, they’re passionate about disability inclusion. They’re looking to create change within their community on a national scale and on a global scale.
Jay Ruderman: Meir, what were your first thoughts, when Jenny brought this issue of the disparity in medal payouts to Link 20?
Meir Zimmerman: I couldn’t believe it. It was such a disparity. It really speaks akin to the value that, I think, even the government sees people with disability, how they value them. We initially saw this as a major issue. We didn’t wanna decide whether, or not it was a project for Link 20 without asking Link 20’s network. We sent, an email to the entire Link 20 network, to several hundred advocates around the US and we wrote, “This is the issue. What do you guys think about it?” There was an outpouring of support for Jenny and other Paralympic athletes. People really thought that this issue didn’t just speak to the pay disparity, but it also spoke to a lack of value of people with disabilities in general.
Meir Zimmerman: The Paralympics is the third most watched sporting event in the world, after the FIFA World Cup and after the Olympics. It is globally one of the largest sporting events, yet, we don’t value Team USA athletes as much as the other athletes. We organize together as a group of advocates in writing a letter to the United States Olympic Committee. We addressed it to the chair of that committee, Larry Proust. We sent that letter to him. We actually created two videos and we pushed it out on social media.
Meir Zimmerman: In the first week, we had over 250,000 views on the video. It was shared widely, and really helped create awareness around this issue. We then, continued to follow up with the US OC, the United States Olympic Committee. As Jenny said, it was around the time of World’s that we got new through the grapevine. It wasn’t official yet, but they were coming up for a vote. They didn’t just change it. They retroactively went back to the last Paralympic games in South Korea. They’re gonna be giving equal pay to all those athletes. I think it’s over 1.2 million dollars that’s being added to the payout to those athletes.
Jay Ruderman: What are other similar advocacy responses that are in the making, that Link 20s looking at right now?
Meir Zimmerman: The most recent thing that we’re working on is … There was recently a story that was brought to our attention. Justin Gallo, an athlete with Cerebral Palsy. He’s a runner for the Oregon Ducks, a college team. He was signed by Nike as their first athlete with Cerebral Palsy to be signed by Nike to a promotional deal. In the video they released, they wrote that Justin suffers from Cerebral Palsy. This story was one of the most widely reported stories in the past couple of days, in the entire US. It’s got that inspiration vibe.
Meir Zimmerman: What we really feel was needs to change here and what the Link 20 members rallied around, this is the biggest response we’ve ever had from Link 20 advocates on trying to change things, is they wanted to change the wording in that video from, suffers from, to has. Justin has Cerebral Palsy. He doesn’t suffer from Cerebral Palsy.
Meir Zimmerman: I think it’s really important to understand that I don’t think it’s just about changing it in this one story. I think we’re hoping that by making noise and creating awareness around this issue, that in the future, whenever a news publication, or whenever a production company, or whenever a media outlet is reporting on a person with a disability, that they check and they make sure to use the right language.
Meir Zimmerman: Link 20 as a whole is creating a video and we’re also writing a letter directly, that we’re giving to the production of Nike. We’re asking them to create change and to change the language in the video currently, and to also consider having a conversation with us about language in general. The impact of this is that, in the future, when Nike and other companies like Nike are looking to create media around people with disabilities, that they really talk to the disability community, cause that’s the missing piece.
Jay Ruderman: It’s so important. I just recently gave an interview to Forbes about the same issue. Members of the media are just the general, public. Historically, people with disabilities are looked at as inferior and suffering, or deserving pity. It’s a whole education process that has to be down with the media, in addition to the general, public. What’s the next thing for Link 20?
Meir Zimmerman: Link 20 is working to be able to rally behind somebody who brings us an issue that we all agree is an issue, working on how we can respond to that in a concise and in an impactful way, so that we can hopefully create change, in the public perception. One of our big projects coming up is the MIT leadership course. It’s called, Leadership in the Digital Age. We partnered with MIT. The ultimate goal of that is to create influencers, people with disabilities that can on social media, helping create change, change public perception, and they’re part of Link 20, so that they can use the platform and resources we have to create change. That’s ultimately what’s next, hopefully creating a difference.
Jay Ruderman: Thanks Meir. I appreciate your passion and your dedication and your desire to be a change agent. Thanks for joining us.
Meir Zimmerman: Thank you for having me. Thank you for supporting Link 20.
Announcer: All Inclusive, is a production of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Our key mission is the full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society. You can find ALL INCLUSIVE on Apple podcast, Google Play, Spotify, and Stitcher. To view the show notes, transcripts, or to learn more, go to rudermanfoundation.org/allinclusive. Have an idea for a podcast, be sure to Tweet @JayRuderman.