One word kept coming up over and over again in my conversations with people in my tournament tour: empowerment. It seems like that word is used a million times a day, from lofty political speeches to diaper commercials. What does it really mean? Apart from a legal definition, giving someone legal authority to do something, a simple definition might be “to give someone power.” But that’s so wide open that one can say that bigots are empowered to hate and discriminate. We don’t normally use the word in that way–normally. Usually it has something to do with sparking an individual’s agency to achieve something good in his or her life. Okay, that’s better. But how does it work in the world of wheelchair tennis?
My conversation with Harlon Matthews in Augusta helped me understand. At the 2014 U.S. Open, the USTA presented him the “The Human Spirit Award,” in memory of Randy Snow. In April 2015, he received the “Brad Parks Award.” Both awards were bestowed upon Harlon for being an outstanding ambassador of the sport, having helped grow the sport, not just in Atlanta, the state of Georgia, or the southern section of the USTA but nationally as well.
Why does Harlon do this? When he was thirty-four years old, he went to an all-sports wheelchair camp, where he met the great Randy Snow. A longtime wheelchair basketball athlete, Harlon gave tennis a try. Here’s what, in Harlon’s words, “motivated and empowered” him: “Randy came to the net and said something to the effect, ‘I’m sorry that I can’t remember your name. But I saw you bank a fifteen-foot shot in basketball. And now I see you on this court, and let me tell you something, you’re a natural born athlete. If you don’t keep doing this, you’re selling yourself short.’” Harlon didn’t sell himself short. He went on to become a dominant wheelchair tennis athlete.
“It’s all about heart,” he said. He had received something so good that he felt passionate about sharing it with others. For Harlon, it’s been about instilling that good feeling in other tennis players, who then take the feeling with them off the court. I pushed him a bit further and asked him what that “good feeling” is. He said, “You are moving, you’re not just sitting still. You say to yourself, ‘I have the energy to do this. I’m accomplishing something. If I can do it on this stinking tennis court, I can go out and drive and do other stuff.’ Tennis is the catalyst, the tool to do other things. You have a purpose and you begin to ask, ‘What else can I do?’ It’s not just the status quo.”
As I thought about what Harlon said, there were two things that stood out to me. First, I wondered what “I can go out” really means. Let’s work with this hypothetical drawn from the many people I met. Let’s say that Alma was an able-bodied person who recently became a paraplegic because of a motorcycle accident. Alma’s trauma sends her into dark places. She exists in the shadows of life. We can think of Harlon’s words as “empowering” Alma to move out of the darkness and shadows and into the public spaces of life. “I can go out,” she say.
The private sphere of the family is critical to Alma’s self-esteem, assuming the family is loving and supportive. But the ability to participate in the public sphere is equally critical. It’s in our public spaces that we build upon our identities by engaging with others in thoughtful conversations about life and its meaning. Those spaces range from political rallies to religious or spiritual gatherings. By engaging in the public sphere, by “getting out,” we hope to significantly reduce and eventually eliminate the socially-created stigma and shame of a physical disability. Of course, Alma won’t be able to make that transition if there are physical barriers to our public spaces or bigots are able to discriminate against her with no consequence. In the United States, her transition is made easier by the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark legislation enacted in 1990 that provides nondiscrimination protection in a broad range of areas, including employment, public services, and public accommodations.
The second thing that struck me about Harlon’s words is that empowerment is something that triggers that individual, who now inhabits public spaces, to “do other stuff,” triggers that individual to ask, “What else can I do?” It’s not just what Alma actually does achieve, but how many other opportunities might be available to that person. Let’s say playing wheelchair tennis “empowered” her to use her agency to move forward, get an education, and become an engineer. That’s fantastic. Alma actually achieved something very significant.
But I think Harlon was getting at something more than that. As an academic, I did lots of work with the so-called “capabilities approach” to well-being, a framework pioneered by the economist Amartya Sen and philosopher Martha Nussbaum. Don’t worry. I’m not going to go academic on you. But for Sen, who wrote Development as Freedom (a great book I recommend to you), empowerment is all about how much freedom an individual has to elect from a range of goals. So for Alma we would ask, “How much freedom does she have to pursue and achieve any number of things she might want to do?” Does she have the options to be not only an engineer, but also, say, an orchestra conductor, a doctor, a lawyer (God forbid!), etc.? The more options, the better.
Can wheelchair tennis do that? Expand a person’s “capabilities?” A tennis ball can’t alone expand Alma’s range of options. But it does open her eyes to possibilities that she couldn’t see in the darkness of her trauma. And it’s the type of people you’ve met in this book, and the countless others like them, who help her out of the darkness, in some cases with a simple toss of a tennis ball that she manages to hit over the net. From there it takes a network of support to expand Alma’s options—e.g., family and friends, therapists, private foundations, educational grants and loans and non-discrimination legislation.
If someone says that Harlon, as I’ve interpreted his words, is asking for too much, that we should be happy that people like Alma can find “a” job and not be unemployed, let’s see if that person would change his tune if Alma turned out to be his daughter.