A few months ago I was having a chat with Craig Demartino, one of my climbing friends at Paradox Sports. We were talking about the Mountain Games in Vail, Colorado that are held each June. The conversation went something like this:
Craig: It would be awesome if you could come to the Mountain Games this June.
Me: I would love to but sadly I’ve got prior work obligations.
Craig: Here’s the thing. We need more [disabled] women. Last weekend at the American Bouldering Series we had 6 competitors, 5 men and 1 woman. I don’t understand it. I meet lots of disabled women, just like I meet lots of disabled men. These women are really amazed by what we’re doing but, with few exceptions, yourself included, they’re not stoked to get out there.
Me: Craig, it’s your stubbly chin. But, let me get think about this for a minute because the language is really important… Umm… “To overcome is a more masculine approach while to endure is a more feminine approach.”
Craig: [Pause] You gotta put that on a t-shirt.
I have spent lots of time thinking about gender and disability. Craig’s observation is a common theme that runs through these thoughts. But I haven’t come up with much more in the way of explanation other than… men and women are expected to do disability differently.
There is a quote from a TED Talk by Brene Brown that nicely summarizes shame, social expectation, and gender: ‘For women, shame is “Do it all, do it perfectly, and never let them see you sweat…” Shame for women is this web of unattainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we’re supposed to be, and it’s a straight jacket. For men, shame is not a bunch of competing and conflicting expectations, shame is one [expectation]: “Do not be perceived as weak.”’
I think, for disabled men, climbing can be an avenue to overcome society’s tendency to view you as weak. For women it’s different.
To climb is to sweat, and – at least for me – it’s an outward, visible struggle. In yoga, my teacher Jeff likes to call it the elegant struggle. But I can assure you that while I’m climbing there’s very little elegance and an extra helping of struggle, counter to Brown’s ‘social expectation’.
The irony is that climbing is inherently disabling, never mind gender or physical ability. Climbers at any level know all too well that if you are ‘able’ to climb every route that you attempt, then, well, you’re missing the point of the whole activity. You would be doing yourself a disservice by not attempting routes you’re presently disabled to do.
Only by attempting and failing can gains in ability eventually be made.
And besides, that’s where the laughs are.