Equality vs. Equity in the Olympic Games

By Culla Galaher, OHSU UCEDD Intern

October 11, 2021

I haven't been watching the Olympics. The more I think about it, the more unfair the Olympics become. The Olympics are based on the idea of "equality." Equality means everyone gets the same thing and performs under the same conditions. The Olympics strives to create a controlled environment where the only variable is the athletic talent of the Olympians. But this concept is inherently flawed in that not all athletes are the same. In fact, all athletes,like all people, are a little different. And the challenge with equality is that when everyone is submitted to the same conditions it will inherently advantage some and discriminate against others.

For example, all swimmers are required to wear the samekind of swim cap despite Black swimmers explicitly stating that these swim caps don't work for their hair. Swim caps made for natural Black hair were rejected for use in the Olympics by the International Swimming Federation because swimming conditions then would not be "equal." Swimmers with natural Black hair are forced to use swim caps designed for caucasian hair, in the name of equality. This effort to create equal conditions discriminates against Black swimmers, and highlights why we need to create equitable conditions rather than equal conditions.

This summer I had the privilege to participate in a virtual summer internship with the UCEDD at OHSU. During my time interning, my understanding of equity has been challenged and deepened. I've observed in my life that often equity for people with disabilities has focused on making the world livable.

However, working in the UCEDD the idea was solidified within me that equity for people with disabilities isn't just access to basic life necessities but to enriched and joyful lives.

At the UCEDD I learned about new access tools available that can help offer increased quality of life (QOL) to people with all different abilities. I particularly enjoyed learning about eye gaze AAC devices. Learning about eye gaze AAC opened a whole world of accessibility for me that I never knew existed. What was particularly exciting for me is that eye gaze technology allows us to meet almost anyone where they are to facilitate high QOL.

I also researched universal design, specifically its place in the classroom. I learned about creating inclusive learning environments that allow students with learning disabilities to participate in meaningful ways. Classrooms are often designed for neurotypical students with learning styles andneeds that don't work for students with disabilities. Subjecting all students to the same learning environments while equal, is not equitable. I was able to present about how universally designed learning creates education environments that are equitable,by catering to a wide variety of learning styles. The pillars of universally designed learning are representation, engagement, and expression. Representation refers to implementing accessibility practices in the classroom such as providing captions for videos and large text. Engagement means creating options for students around how they interact with what they are learning, such as listening to lectures, speaking in seminars, and watching movies. Finally, expression refers to how students are allowed to express what they have learned. Instead of telling all students to write a report, asking students to reflect in a way that is accessible to them allows students to participate more meaningfully. Some students may do well writing reports, but some students may express their learning better through presentations, making videos, or creating art. When we make all students learn the same way, under equal conditions, some of those students will excel and some will struggle, simply through chance of if their learning style and needs are being catered to.

As I said, I have not been watching the Olympics. However, I am excited to watch the Paralympics starting on August 24th. What's so different about the Paralympics from the Olympics? The Paralympics are all about equity. Athletes do not all compete under the exact same conditions in the Paralympics. Looking at the Paralympic Games, you see direct competition between athletes using different access tools, or moving in different ways. Athletes in the Paralympics use the accommodations and access tools that will allow them to perform their best.

I am using disability in the Paralympics to show how equity creates fair competition, but disability is not the only place where equity is important. Anyone existing in a space not designed for them will need some equity.Our hospitals are not designed for many marginalized groups. They are not designed for People of Color because our medical textbooks don't teach what symptoms look like on dark skin. Our hospitals are not designed for non-English speakers when doctors are not widely multilingual and interpreters are not readily available.

Our hospitals are not designed for women
while we still use BMI as a health determinant, a calculation developed around white men's bodies.I think sometimes people with non-marginalized identities feel recognizing diversity is somehow rude, that it is distasteful to point out that someone is different from you. However, we need to acknowledge the diversity in our communities to understand how our spaces may not work for everyone. Equity is recognizing that different people need different things, that we are not all the same and that's ok