The current most commonly asked question by random strangers when they see me in my wheels.
Many other people with visible disabilities are finding the same. It has triggered much discussion in social media, but broadly speaking there seem 2 main attitudes towards this assumption that disability=paralympian. One of annoyance, and one of pleased-ness.
So, from what I understand and have read:
When you know how exhausted you get, your pain levels etc, then the paralympic comment feels a bit like a slap in the face. And seeing as part of you is probably a bit jealous and would love to train every day without hospitalising yourself - well, it just isn't a happy moment looked at like that.
And then there's the fear that people will only see your value if you are a paralympian. That to be sporty makes you socially acceptable. Perhaps an unattainable target for some. And the "if they think I am an athlete, they are totally going to overestimate my abilities, and I'm going to have to keep explaining my limitations over and over again, sounding feeble and emphasising my disability. Depressing."
It is like when you are feeling seriously rough and someone tells you you look fabulous. And you get the urge to hit them on the head yelling "I feel hideous, and I will make you feel equally bad so you understand!!". Only bigger.
To be mistaken for an elite athlete....well....there has to be an assumption on their part that you are talented, fit, awesome and generally to be looked-up-to. Ok, so you might know you only just managed to drag yourself out of the house for the 1st time in weeks, and feel hideous, but hey, people looking at you have positive sterotype - and aren't all pitying.
It beats the second most common assumption which is that a wheelchair user is helpless and feeble.
And perhaps sometimes it isn't really a serious "I actually think you are a paralympian" more a conversation starter and something to break the ice. In which case I find it preferable to "it must be so hard for you having to use that."
And it is certainly an indicator that people are starting to recognise that disability isn't all doom and gloom, but contains definite potential for Gold.
Personally: (and therefore you don't have to agree)
I think I have both reactions within me.
That means I can choose which I act on - which I feed, and encourage to grow stronger.
I've decided to choose the Pleased-ness.
And from a place of pleased/complimented I can let them know that actually, I'm an author, or I'm just shopping, or doing physio. And perhaps a short conversation will ensue, which leads to them being that bit more comfortable with and understanding of disability in general.
Because experience tells me that it is much easier to help someone see disability as OK, and part of normal when I feel positive than when I feel offended.
And I like being complimented. So I will assume, from now on, that anyone who asks me if I am training for/in the paralympics, is really saying that they recognise that I am a valuable member of society.
True, they might have actually mean't "If you aren't an athlete then you have no value", but if I've just responded with polite cheerfullness, showing positivity and that I am an intelligent person who contributes to society, the chances are they'll go away with something to think about and maybe change their perspective. They are hardly going to say "Actually I meant that you are worthless cos you don't do sport." - And if they do? - I'll pity their blinkered prejudice which must limit them in far more ways than a set of wheels, and move on. Leaving their problem with them.