Paralympic star Brad Snyder talks accessibility, identity, thoughts on Paris 2024
Thursday marks the 12th Global Accessibility Awareness Day, a catalyst in the conversation for digital access and inclusion for people with disabilities. Brad Snyder, an eight-time Paralympic medalist between swimming and triathlon and former U.S. Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Officer, who lost vision in both eyes while deployed in Afghanistan, discusses his experiences with accessibility, the everyday challenges of vision loss, how his sense of identity evolved, why the Paralympic Movement is so special and whether he will bid for a fourth Paralympics in 2024.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
OlympicTalk: How important is Global Accessibility Awareness Day to you, and what does accessibility and representation mean to you?
Snyder: Global Accessibility Day is really critically important for me. It’s something that I wasn’t fully aware of and didn’t fully appreciate, especially when I was first blind. But over the last 10 years I have a growing appreciation and passion for trying to make sure that people are aware of the constraints and difficulties that those with disabilities face and how the able-bodied community can break down barriers. Accessibility to me is breaking down those institutionalized barriers to those with disabilities to allow them to integrate and be included in every aspect of our day-to-day lives. Whether that’s something silly like watching TV or being integrated into the workplace or participating in sport. For me, there’s a lot of invisible boundaries that exist. Something as simple as filling out a form online can be a 10-second issue or a 45-minute thing if the website is not accessible and I need to go find help. It can be really disappointing and frustrating and a constant reminder of my disability.
I know the same is true for other people on different parts of the spectrum of disability. If you’re a wheelchair user or have other mobility issues -- things like high curbs or no elevator can be prohibitively difficult and can exist as obstacles for you to be fully integrated into your community. It’s just not fair to have that obstacle before you because our society is built for able-bodied folks. The more people are aware of the gamut of disability, it can really increase our quality of life and increase the level of inclusion for those with disabilities, which I firmly believe increases the happiness and fulfillment of our overall society.
You made the courageous and selfless decision to serve your country, where you sustained a complete loss of vision in both eyes in 2011. You’ve talked in the past about struggling with your identity in the immediate aftermath. Can you talk about what that was like and some of the everyday challenges you’ve faced?
Snyder: I think a lot of people look at incurring a disability like that in life and think it’s all about figuring out how to work with blindness. How do you order stuff off Amazon? How do you watch TV? How do you figure out what shirt to wear? My experience with that was the easy stuff. Figuring out how to use a cane and get around with a guide dog or how to put on the audio description on the TV, that stuff comes relatively quickly. What’s really difficult is figuring out who you are and what value you bring to society.
Making the choice to serve, that’s a reflection of who I am and who I’ve always been. The value I see in myself is my ability to contribute, help and serve in some capacity. The challenge in losing my vision had everything to do with what value am I going to bring. What work can I do? What service can I offer? How can I positively impact society when I can’t even find the food on my plate? I think the tactics of blindness were important and really integral in me figuring out who I would be. But the harder things were how do I establish a sense of confidence? How do I find a way to serve? How do I have a voice?
That’s where sports became really important for me. Being able to get back in the pool and start to race again was a way for me to see my value. Especially being able to succeed in the Paralympic Movement. I can see I have a platform. I have the ability to inspire people. I have the ability to communicate to people about how to navigate adversity and how to be a role model. That’s where I started to see, understand and accept where my value was. This is how I can serve. I can serve as a Paralympian, and I think that’s been a really great second career for me.
Are there any challenges with getting prosthetic eyes in terms of accessibility?
Snyder: I think yes. I’ve been really lucky from that standpoint. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA) has done a really good job of alleviating that issue for me. I’ve been able to get multiple sets of eyes through the VA.
As a quick aside, last year on our vacation at the Jersey Shore, I made the silly decision to go and body surf, which was a lot of fun until I lost an eye. I had to go back to the VA and say I need a new set of eyes. It was a very quick and painless process for me to get that.
With that said, I’m acutely aware that my veteran status has given me that benefit that’s not enjoyed by all. Actually getting prosthetics, whether it’s eyes or legs or arms, for the community that’s not affiliated with the military or being a veteran, it’s extremely difficult and can be arduous. Insurance exists as an obstacle in that regard. Accessibility in that space is definitely an issue across the gamut of disability.
Do you feel like there are enough resources and that there is enough representation for people with vision loss specifically, and if not, what do you think should be different?
Snyder: The answer is unequivocally no. I recognize the challenge in that we’re a very small minority of the overall population. It’s very rare that someone knows or has a personal relationship with someone that is blind, and I think it does take a personal relationship to understand and empathize with their struggle. That’s one component of it, but I think you mentioned a really important word -- representation.
Making sure that wherever possible, disability is a consideration at the leadership level of every organization. Whether it’s a public entity in the government space, a non-profit or a corporation, board representation, or having a chief people officer who’s knowledgeable in the full gamut of [disability]. It’s really important to make sure that there’s at least a voice for the visually impaired and all those with disabilities wherever possible. Making those small accommodations, like an accessible website, can dramatically improve the quality of life and inclusivity for those like myself, who have a visual impairment or other disability.
Earlier on, you talked about how much being able to serve was deeply rooted in your identity. You’re a three-time Paralympian and an eight-time Paralympic medalist -- a true patriot who represents the U.S. so well. How much pride do you have in getting to represent your country and how would you sum up your Paralympic experiences in one word and why?
Snyder: The one word I’ll use is honor. It’s an honor to compete. I recognize that I’m very fortunate to have the opportunity to express my virtue in that space. I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to compete in the Paralympics and represent the best virtues of our country, and to bring that back and try to inspire that in other people. It’s an honor to be able to represent what society wants to see in itself. People watch the Paralympics, and they’re prideful of our flag and our athletes, because we all believe that the athletes represent the best versions of ourselves.
I have immense pride. I was steeped in the idea of service from a very early age. Three out of four of my grandparents all served in the Navy actually in and around World War II. I grew up looking at pictures of them in their uniforms on the wall and hearing the stories of World War II, the fight against fascism and knowing and understanding that my grandparents had all been a component of that big narrative. It gave me the sense that the best and most noble sort of pursuit for me would be to follow in their footsteps and serve in the military and serve in the Navy specifically. For me, that was always just a part of where I was going. Like I talked about earlier, that did set me up for some sort of challenge when I had to give that up. But to be able to return to that same feeling of representing my country and those ideals, I have an immense amount of pride for that.
While I have pride for myself and in my guide, Greg Billington, when we get to win, I have more pride when I get to come back and share that story with others. We call it the flame to flame. I can show a kid my medal and I know, especially with kids, they’re not celebrating me. They’re thinking, “I can do that, too.” That’s what I have the most pride in. Bringing it back and sowing that dream for future generations.
It actually comes back to the beginning of the conversation about accessibility. It’s one thing to sow that dream for an Olympian who has access to the local swim team, the local pool, and they can see Michael Phelps and say I’m going to do what Michael Phelps did. It’s a whole other thing for a person with a disability, especially a young person with a disability, because that pathway is not clear for them. The more that we can put the Paralympics out into that space, the more we can feature accessibility. The more we can make those small accommodations, the more that young person is to see their pathway to the podium.
What sets the Paralympic Games and Paralympic Movement apart from any other other sporting event, and why should people tune in?
Snyder: The Paralympics has all the stuff that we love about sports. It has the intensity. It has the drama. It has the excellence. It has the speed. Whether it’s World Cup or the NFL or the NBA, it has the same kind of dynamic. But what it also has is major adversity. The ability for someone to accept and move forward after losing a limb to cancer or (facing explosives) in Afghanistan or being paralyzed by a traumatic accident when they were younger. While Paralympians don’t want to be defined by those narratives, they exist as a defining characteristic of the movement, and to me it only heightens all the stuff that we love about sport -- the drama, the intensity the competition, and oh, by the way, each of these athletes has been dealt a very difficult hand.
They don’t have the same accessibility. They don’t have the same opportunities. They don’t have the same pathway, but yet they’ve succeeded anyway. To me, that’s what makes the Paralympics so magical. It’s why I’m so prideful to be a Paralympian. Now, I love that in the U.S., the Olympic and Paralympic Committee is the same committee. We stand side by side with our Olympic counterparts. There’s immense power to both movements. But I do think that there’s important distinguishing factors, and to me, I think the narratives of adversity are an integral component to the Paralympic Movement.
You became the first American male Paralympian to win a triathlon at the Tokyo Games (after it debuted in 2016). What does that accomplishment mean to you?
Snyder: It means that we have a lot of room for improvement. I like that I was first, and I’m honored, but I think that now it sets the bar high for our program. I’ve long believed that the best Paralympic athletes in the U.S. don’t yet know about the Paralympics, or they don’t know that exists as an opportunity for them, or there is some significant barrier preventing them from being able to compete, whether that’s access to the right technology and equipment that might give them an opportunity. If I could do it, I bet you there’s someone else way better than me who’s out there in our community right now who just needs to be presented that opportunity.
I know you’re focusing on writing your dissertation and fatherhood, but what are your thoughts on Paris 2024?
Snyder: I don’t know that I’ve fully made that decision (on whether to bid for the Paris Games). I’m of two minds, and I’m of two hearts, and it’s really difficult to navigate this situation. I know there’s a lot of other Olympic and Paralympic parents who are constantly navigating the situation, oftentimes, maybe even better than me. I think of Melissa Stockwell, who’s been doing this for a long time and really doing it with a lot of grace. But for me, it’s difficult where, on one hand, I want to be present and making the most of literally every moment with my daughter, Rooney.
When she’s very little, it’s hard to step away from that, because I feel like I need to be there. I don’t want to be a helicopter parent, but when she’s really little I need to be there as much as possible. I know that, for me, to be the best version of myself in sports, I need to train, but that’s time I have to spend away from her.
The other part of me is not ready to be done being a racer. I love racing. I love competition. I love holding myself to the fire. I love going down to my garage and just hammering on the bike. I don’t think that part of me will ever go away, so I’ve been of two minds. I think I’ve been annoying the crap out of my wife, Sara. One day, I’m all-in, and the next day, I can’t do it. I’ve been going back and forth for the last year. The compromise I was able to make is to say that being a dad comes first. That will remain true forever, but I think as Rooney grows up, I’ll be able to step away and do a little bit more training and racing, and it’ll become a little easier for me to feel comfortable doing that. So maybe by Paris, but likely by LA 2028 is when I’ll feel comfortable doing that.
While I say I’ll be a racer for life, I do think that LA is probably the end of my elite career. I’m just about 40 years old. My body isn’t what it once was. My heart is aflame with the idea of being able to compete here in the U.S., but after that, I think I’m just really going to need to focus on being a dad, and I look forward to that.
What led to your decision to pursue your Ph.D.?
Snyder: After Rio, I had a bit of a pre-midlife crisis. I understood that being a professional athlete is an amazing experience, but it’s a limited-time offer. Eventually, I won’t be able to compete. Eventually, there won’t be sponsors. Eventually, the media will move on to a younger athlete with a much more compelling story than me, and that resource and vocation won’t be there. I need to have a different way of serving and earning a paycheck. I kind of floated around for a bit not really knowing what that looked like, and then, really by happenstance, I was offered an opportunity to go back and do some real part-time teaching at the Naval Academy, my alma mater (in the leadership and ethics department). I found that I loved it.
I was a pretty terrible student when I was in college, and I had vowed I would never go back to school, but now I had a reason. I really want to be a faculty member at the Naval Academy, so I need to go back to school. I need to get a Ph.D. Princeton offered me a great program at the public policy school where I could take various lessons from philosophy, psychology, sociology and distill that into something that might be super relevant for how we train leaders to be ethical decision makers on the battlefield. That’s my primary focus. I’m three years into a five-year program. Hopefully, at the end of that, I will defend a dissertation, and then immediately go back and earn my spot as a faculty member at the Naval Academy.
What has fatherhood has taught you?
Snyder: One thing I’ve been able to learn through that process is the importance of being in the moment. My wife and I have known this from the very beginning that it’s hard, and you’re very tired. You’re always doing one thing into the next, and you’re constantly looking on the internet to say is this normal? And what do I understand about sleep training or whatever else? It’s really hard to be in the moment because you’re constantly being distracted. We’re also trying to keep up our professional careers and go to school and write this and do this workout, so it’s really hard. But being present for the moment when Rooney does something for the first time is amazing.
It’s hard to say whether kids learn to be themselves or they’re themselves already, and they’re just revealing themselves to you incrementally. I kind of like the second view. She’s already who she is, but she’s just revealing that to me day-in and day-out a little bit at a time. She’s got a cool nature. If she’s eating, and I say, “Rooney, can I have some? She’ll hand me a Cheerio.” She loves to share. She loves to see other people. She’s obsessed with waving to people.
The other night I was getting her ready for bed, and I was trying to find the zipper to the blanket she wears. I was actually legitimately struggling because I’m blind, and I can’t find it. Eventually she grabbed it and handed it to me like she understood. I was blown away.
How did you and Sara pick the name Rooney?
Snyder: We were listening to a podcast, and Joaquin Phoenix had some kind of interview. We both liked the name Joaquin because, at the time, we didn’t know if we were having a girl or a boy. But then we found out we were having a girl. For whatever reason, his partner, Rooney Mara, popped into our mind. We both liked the name, and when I googled it, we found out Rooney means two things, either hero or the descendant of a champion. I was in Tokyo when I knew we were pregnant. Rooney, to me, means the legacy of your story. I won gold when you were just in mom’s belly. That’s a cool part of the name. Her middle name is Mae, which is a family name, and we love the sound of Rooney Mae.
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