This paper draws together two fields of study and activism: disability studies and transgender studies. I analyze disability and transgender identifications and communities through a comparative and intersectional lens. From conceptual terminology, to societal oppression, to discrimination within medical interactions, disability studies and transgender studies share common themes that this article evaluates to facilitate a broader understanding of their complementary and innovative potential for social change.
Threads of Commonality in Transgender and Disability Studies
The button pictured above says: "Crips & Trannies Need to Pee Too" (Koyama et al). I originally learned about this button from a zine called Restricted!! Voices on Disability and Sexuality. Created in Bowling Green, Ohio in 2005, the zine contains twelve essays from people who are queer or transgender and have disabilities. This button is simultaneously catchy, funny, and thought-provoking by pointing to something quite everyday, using the bathroom, as a site where people whose bodies differ in some way from the norm are often excluded. Bathrooms are segregated by binary gender, and unless otherwise marked, are often inaccessible because of the gender designation or because the space is not large enough to accommodate different bodies. In addition to the physical barriers, limited bathroom options for people with disabilities and transgender people does discursive violence by not acknowledging the existence of disabled and transgender people. Public bathrooms are just one of the sites where transgender and disability meet, and activists communities are making connections already, such as the safe2pee website (safe2pee), which contains interactive maps of accessible bathrooms all over the United States, Mexico, and Canada.
This paper discusses some of the other important ways that transgender and disability issues overlap and intersect in academic and non-academic communities. I came to this topic because I have been heavily involved in transgender and disability activism and communities in my undergraduate career at the University of Washington. I identify as queer and I have a psychiatric disability, so these issues are personal and academic interests of mine. I have been involved in activism around trans-inclusive healthcare and gender neutral bathrooms. In the gender neutral bathroom activism I have participated in, we made connections between bathrooms that are physically accessible for people with disabilities and bathrooms that are accessible for people with a wide variety of gender identities. My own activism and connections to activists who are working on these issues helped inform how I wanted to approach the topic of intersectionality.
Scant published work specifically addresses the connections between transgender and disability studies. The limited scholarship on this connection concerns disability and sexual queerness, in a broad sense. Robert McRuer's book, Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability, begins to address the intersections between queer theory and disability studies, and he uses concepts such as Judith Butler's "performativity" and Adrienne Rich's "compulsory heterosexuality." Eli Clare's book, Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation, also discusses intersections between queerness and disability. Clare writes about transgender people; however, the focus of this piece involves broader understandings of "queer" and intersectionality among a myriad of identities. My aim is to specifically address transgender and disability studies together in a way that has not been done before.
To explore the intersections between transgender studies and disability studies, I begin with a discussion of the terms I am going to use for my analysis, including how I will define "transgender" and "disability" and how I will use works that talk about queerness and disabilities. The next two sections are about medical and societal systems that strive to normalize people with disabilities and transgender people. I focus on medical systems, social institutions, and passing because these mechanisms are used to punish embodied difference in a broad sense. In the two sections that follow, I talk about community-level intersections between transgender and disability communities around hierarchies, labeling, communities, and coalitions. These connections are important to examine because of the potential for social change exemplified within building ties across communities. By understanding the ways transgender studies and disability studies intersect, we can have a deeper understanding of both fields and recognize the potential for changing inaccessible societal systems.
Thoughts on Terminology and Existing Fields
Terminology is a critical concern for both transgender and disability communities because naming indicates operations of power. Historically in the West, people with disabilities and transgender people have rarely been able to name themselves. I am using the word "transgender" as an umbrella term to talk about transsexuals, genderqueers, intersexuals, and other people who do not fit into a traditional gender binary. I define "disability" as an umbrella term to talk about people with mobility, psychiatric, learning, developmental, and sensory disabilities. These terms are both community/self-defined, as well as legally defined in some cases. I will go more into the meanings, histories, and ideas that shape use of terms later in this paper.
I am going to be using person-first language in order to avoid labeling a group of people solely based upon their disabilities. In Claiming Disability, Simi Linton discusses language which has been used to talk about people with disabilities and how it has been harmful and claimed as a site of resistance. The disability community has begun to take control of the words that have been used to describe disability and disabled people, both the words that name oppression and name groups. The words used to describe disability have been and are still used to mark a medicalized label, but they also name an identity and provide a rallying point for activism and a collective group. Linton calls for people to talk about their disabilities; to move beyond the shame and fear, to make the personal political.
While "queer" has functioned as an umbrella term, it is this precise function that can exclude people who are supposed to be "covered" under the umbrella for the sake of a singular unity. Judith Butler discusses this issue in Bodies That Matter when she states, "[A]s expansive as the term 'queer' is meant to be, it is used in ways that enforce a set of overlapping divisions" (228). Butler points out that "queer" aims to cover many groups of diverse people and because of the massive tasks involved in doing that, there are always going to be problems. This is not to say that "queer" should be eliminated altogether; however, we have to recognize the limits of the term in its current usage.
Queer studies addresses the materiality and corporeality of sexuality; however, it does not do an adequate job of analyzing the ways in which this is informed by, and intersects with, gender's corporeality. Transgender studies emerged, in part, because "queer" and queer studies have been unable to fully address the issues involved in looking critically at transgender experiences. Susan Stryker refers to transgender studies as queer theory's "evil twin" to explain similarities and differences between the two. She states that "'transgender' increasingly functions as the site in which to contain all gender trouble, thereby helping secure homosexuality and heterosexuality as stable and normative categories of personhood" because they are still bound up in binary gender (214). She argues that queer theorists often use transgender identities to legitimize their own aims, either by claiming trans people as a part of a "cohesive" queer community or by using trans identities as the measure of abnormality. (For more on this, see Namaste; Jagose) .
Transgender studies, much like disability studies, works with the lived bodily experiences of people who fit outside of hegemonic gender norms and the ways in which people negotiate corporeal experiences that run up against societal barriers that only privilege certain bodies. Transsexuality is often thought of as a primarily bodily experience because of its association with changing bodies, despite transsexuals' broader definitions (Bornstein 8). Specifically, because transsexuality is seen as pathological (e.g. "Gender Identity Disorder," as cited in the DSM IV), and other queer identities are most often not anymore, transsexuals' stories do not fit under dominant representations of "queer." Trans (short for transgender) identities are used to talk about the ways in which queer identities intersect with gender, while de-emphasizing the specifically physical aspects of talking about who are considered "men" and "women." Similar to the uses of disability, the word "transgender" is a result of claiming an identity and has been used to talk about a large group of people. The word "transgender" is a fairly new term "that emerged in its current usage as a collective category of personhood in the early 1990s," developing from activism in New York and San Francisco (Valentine 229-230). People with various trans identities can and do use the word and concept of "transgender" to bind together and have more political power.
I am not arguing that queer theory is not trying to be inclusive or is always delegitimizing transgender identities. But a more comprehensive understanding of gender identities must be taken up if the word "queer" is to fully represent trans identities. This issue is important to my work because a good deal of the scholarship I have referenced here that involves intersectionality uses the word "queer" in making connections to disability. However, a connection that is necessary to make between transgender studies and disability studies is the specific corporality and marked bodies of people in these categories, and how such bodies function in medical, societal, and community spheres.
The Medical Model and Institutionalization of Identity
People within disability and transgender communities share histories of medicalization and institutionalization, and the medical model of disability can serve as a jumping-off point for a discussion of medicalization. The medical model of disability states that disability is a purely medical affliction, and "this model defines disability as a personal problem, curable and/or treatable by the medical establishment" (Clare Exile 81). The "problem" of such bodily difference lies solely with the individual person, as though it is an intrinsic characteristic of the person. The medical model of disability asserts that a "cure" would make the person's body "normal." In Exploring Disability, Colin Barnes, Geof Mercer, and Tom Shakespeare suggest that the discourses behind the medical model of disability came out of nineteenth century's advancements in "the scientific medical profession" after large-scale industrialization (19). Lennard Davis further explains that because of the medical profession's ascendancy during this time, the goals of "curing" and determining how to make the human body function in an optimal way were privileged, hand in hand with the rise of the eugenics movement and efforts to do away with difference that was outside of the average (13). Such ideas have persisted into the twenty-first century.
Medical documentation is central to the medical model of disability. Dean Spade, who is a lawyer and activist, articulates the ways transsexual people navigate the law in order to receive medical treatment, and he points out that no matter the subject of a legal case, "medical evidence will be the cornerstone" of determining the rights of the trans person because of the ways trans bodies have been medicalized (18). There is significant overlap between trans and disability studies relating to documentation, investment in normality, and the ties between disability law and transsexuality. For instance, as Dean Spade points out, medical documentation is necessary in order to be recognized as a transsexual. To obtain this, one needs to have a "transsexual story," a need to change one's body, and what are called "real feelings" (Spade 19). Whether a person wants to change one's own body or not, a medical diagnosis is necessary to access the category of transsexual, thus making transsexuality something that is pathological — a personal difficulty of the individual and not something to be accounted for in society. This is also true for disabled students accessing services for academic accommodations in schools. In order to receive extra time for tests or note-takers, one must have a medical diagnosis (for which students must usually pay themselves) to register with the disability services office at their school. Disability is made into a medical diagnosis in this instance, much like transsexuality is pathologized in order for individuals to access services.
Images of people whose bodies fall outside of a constructed norm — whether that be social gender, medically-defined sex, and/or disability — are often employed in an effort to create a picture of what is and is not considered a medical condition. Visual representations of medicalized bodies in textbooks, both of disabled people and transgender people, help to create a specific paradigm within the medical field, "to locate the sight/site of deviance on the bodies of a wide array of social outcasts" (Singer 601). The obsession with locating and photographing what qualities the "social outcasts" embody and finding ways to eradicate or normalize these bodies has roots in eugenics. Images of "abnormal" bodies help uphold ideas of what "normal" bodies look like; they provide a point of comparison. Author Ben Singer analyzes older medical images of intersex and transgender people that represent the ways bodies have been pathologized and the ways in which different bodies have been represented as freakish or abnormal. These clinical photographs are taken in a way that showcases bodies and dehumanizes the actual people in them. For instance, many of the photos show people's bodies and a bar across their eyes, and the subsequent dehumanization of people creates a context where disrespect and discrimination are permissible. Singer juxtaposes medical photos with pictures taken by transgender and intersexual people as a reclamation of their bodies, including photographs of people with physical disabilities (Cameron). By taking their own pictures and displaying them in a different context, the trans, intersexual, and disabled people pictured reclaim their bodies from the medical context in which they have been historically placed and demonstrate that having a variation of bodies is not "wrong" or something to be "fixed."
The issue is not that intersexuals, people with disabilities, or trans people are not "natural"; the issue is that these people and their bodies are seen as threatening to dominant cultural ideals (Kessler 25). Medical systems focused on "fixing" what is "wrong" with non-normative bodies have existed for so long that binary assumptions take precedence over the realities of human variation. Because of bodily difference, these differences are seen as a medical condition that can be "fixed" or altered in order to normalize bodies. Despite this common assumption, those who are being medicalized find ways to exercise forms of resistance.
Societal Perceptions: Passing and "Compulsory Able-Bodiedness"
The social implications of disability and of being transgender result in innumerable social barriers. Disability has been historically seen as a deficit of the individual, as "there remains the persistent belief that the cause of social disadvantage is within individuals and that change is based on personal transformation" (Linton 143). Historically, this has also been the case for queer people, and as I will argue, for people who fall under the transgender umbrella. The dominant sentiment is that if you just try hard enough, you can overcome having a disability or you can be gender normative, with the assumption being that this is the "natural" and "right" way to be. In this section, I address passing and the concept of "compulsory able-bodiedness" because they provide excellent frameworks for thinking about the drive to subscribe to bodily norms. Indeed, passing is often the manifestation of the stronghold "compulsory able-bodiedness" has in the world.
Passing is encouraged when society does not easily accept difference, and it consists of being able to succeed in being perceived as part of the dominant group and therefore not noticed most of the time. For people with disabilities this typically consists of passing for non-disabled, and for trans people it means passing for normatively-gendered. Jamison Green talks about some of the issues surrounding passing within female-to-male transsexual communities; he says in order to be considered a "successful" transsexual, you must appear to not be transsexual at all ("Look" 501). When he began to pass completely as a man, he would give lectures and people would marvel at how "normal" he is; however, on the other hand, the news media reporting on transsexuals would have less interest in him because he doesn't "look like a transsexual" ("Look" 502). As Green says:
Denying our transsexual status is an acquiescence to the prevailing gender binary that will never let us fit in, and will never accept us as equal members of society. Our transsexual status will always be used to threaten and shame us. ("Look" 503)
Green is reminding us that even when one can pass as something, there is always a risk that trans histories, which sometimes have nothing to do with self-identification, will be found out and the person will lose acceptance.
Simi Linton similarly talks about passing in regard to able-bodiedness and how children who use wheelchairs are often taken out of them for family photographs, while other children with invisible disabilities are told not to discuss them (20). She says that the message in this practice is that "you are like everyone else, but only as long as you hide your disability" (21). Passing as non-disabled takes an emotional toll on the person passing, because it requires not talking about a critical part of themselves. This can be compared to the ways going stealth1 as a transsexual means not talking about your past and transition. Also, it means that there is a piece of information that could possibly be used to shame an individual — being trans or being disabled. The shame, however, comes from the fact that disabled bodies and transgender bodies are devalued and are considered a deficit of the person. If the individual is the source of the difference that is regarded as undesirable, then passing as someone who does not have the difference is understood as the best way to deal with this situation. The existence of people with disabilities poses a threat to normative bodies because they are exposing the ways in which society produces social structures around one type of bodily ability while others are devalued.
Robert McRuer analyzes the intersections between disability and sexuality by posing a theory of "compulsory able-bodiedness" (8), building on Adrienne Rich's theory of "compulsory heterosexuality," and both relate to ideas about passing. "Compulsory heterosexuality" explores the sexuality of women and how society's expectations of heterosexuality serve to stigmatize and erase lesbian identity (Rich 229). McRuer explains "compulsory able-bodiedness" as the idea that the "natural" way for bodies to be is non-disabled and that one can "choose" this way of being. There is an implication that if you are disabled, you would rather not be disabled, and that "able-bodied identities, able-bodied perspectives are preferable and what we all, collectively, are aiming for" (9). In other words, you are always failing to be what you "should" be if you are a person with a disability. Both the concepts of "compulsory heterosexuality" and "compulsory able-bodiedness" speak to a culture that mourns the loss of the illusion of "natural," "normal" bodies. Difference in gender and ability are "natural" because so many people embody those differences; however, what is constructed as "natural" does not often match up with those differences. The idea behind Rich's and McRuer's use of "compulsory" is that ability, heterosexuality, and (in my analysis) gender roles, are obligatory, necessary, and carry punitive consequences if breached. Punishment in this sense means denied access to buildings, medical care, or full participation in society.
McRuer's critical and related concept of "ability trouble" (10) draws on Judith Butler's concept of "gender trouble." "Ability trouble" explores the ways in which disability challenges ideas about bodies and ability, much like the existence of drag and queerness poses a threat to gender normativity in Butler's work. Compulsory heterosexuality/compulsory able-bodiedness and gender/ability trouble can be extrapolated to think about trans identities as well. The loss of the idea that gender is a given natural is similar to the loss that being disabled invokes in a society that naturalizes able-bodiedness. When a person does not fulfill the expectations based on that person's assigned sex at birth, it is often considered a tragedy or a problem. Underlying this is the assumption that everyone "wants" to be normatively gendered, that this is the way to happily exist in the world.
Falling outside of societal norms of embodiment often results in an individualization of societal oppression: the individual is the source of the problem because of a personal deficiency and because they are not trying hard enough to eradicate the problem, which implies that society has nothing to do with oppression. Passing for a member of a dominant group in society is an example of this and leads to such questions as: Wouldn't you rather be normal? Being normal is the right way to be, wouldn't you choose it? These questions imply there is nothing positive or useful in falling outside of the norm; however, in reality, many people fall outside of the norm and find ways to reclaim and celebrate their positions in society.
Social Model, Hierarchy, and Social Change
The social model of disability explains that the societal barriers that people with disabilities face are not individual but are actually a result of artificial barriers that privilege certain bodies while failing to recognize others as legitimate. Eli Clare defines the social model of disability as "disability, not defined by our bodies, but rather by the material and social conditions of ableism" (Exile 60). Saying "artificial" here is not to say that these barriers are not real; it means that the barriers were socially constructed but have material effects. As in the case of societal ableism, barriers that trans people face, such as not having a safe bathroom to use, are not a result of the trans person being deficient in some way but are barriers created by society. The social model is a useful tool to analyze hierarchies within communities and the labels groups of people use for collective activity.
A way to define people is through individual and group identities in social contexts. Both "transgender" and "disabled" function as umbrella terms that are meant to encompass or cover many people with varying identities, but as a result, there are divisions within communities because it often proves difficult to serve the needs of everyone within a community with one term/concept. "Transgender" can mean transsexuals, gender queers, intersexuals, drag kings and queens, cross dressers, and many more (Green "Introduction" 3).2 There are several similarities between people classified as "transgender," being groups that call into question the naturalization of binary gender and sex, and therefore, there are many connections to be made. That being said, the groups of people listed to be covered under the term "transgender" are quite diverse in experiences and therefore are not always united under a common goal. Divisions like this can make a cohesive community identity difficult to form.
Within trans and disability communities, there are also hierarchies of identifications. Kate Bornstein speaks of "an unspoken hierarchy" (67) that happens within groups of male-to-female transsexuals that creates situations where people feel like they are not "trans" enough because of lack of surgeries or hormones. This hierarchy reinforces other lines of oppression as well, such as race and class, with white transsexuals often at the top. Because of these hierarchies, collective organizing becomes a difficult task. Similar trends can be found among people with disabilities. While there is a specific legal code for how to define "disability" in terms of effect on one's life and impairment, disability also functions as an identity category and can encompass wheelchair users, people who are D/deaf,3 people who are blind, people with autism, developmentally disabled people, and many more. Within the legal code, there are guidelines one must meet to be considered "disabled enough" to access services under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This legal definition of disability is used for purposes such as employment and academic accommodations in school, and it gives a way to talk about disability for purposes of legal and civil rights. There are limits to its efficacy, however, as it relies on medical documentation and the idea of disability as lack.
Within disability studies there are hierarchies as well — much of the scholarship in disability studies thus far has been produced by white males who have mobility impairments (e.g. Hockenberry). Also, some people within disability communities seek to legitimize their aims by stating the ways they are not like or are above other members of the disability community. For example, in the 2005 documentary Murderball, which follows a wheelchair rugby team going to the Paralympics, one of the members of the rugby team talks about how he wants wheelchair rugby to be considered and respected as a competitive sport. He says, "This is a real competition, it isn't the Special Olympics," thereby delegitimizing the Special Olympics.4 Such divisions can make forming a cohesive community of people with disabilities difficult.
Social models of identity are not only about refuting medical perspectives, but are also about celebrating diversity and making social change, both of which require alliances. Political expediency, which involves leaving people out of a social movement with promises to fight for that group's rights later, often leaves disenfranchised groups to fight for their own rights. This exclusion has been an attribute of many social movements, such as second wave United States feminism, where white women excluded concerns about racism within the women's movement in order to facilitate a "unified" front of homogenized women, which alienated women of color from the movement (Hill Collins 14). The act of dividing up groups of women created a weaker movement, and "experience has shown that nothing is more destructive of efforts to win civil rights protections for our communities than internal conflicts and divisions" (Green 51). "Internal conflicts and divisions" are issues in transgender communities and disability communities as well. Examples of political expediency surrounding these issues can be seen in recent proposed legislation as well as in past civil rights movements.
Divisions in the face of political pressure are exemplified by the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), where transgender people were excluded from the official bill presented to Congress. The "T" of GLBT was taken off of ENDA because it was thought to be too risky in getting the bill to pass. Congressman Barney Frank and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) were big proponents of this exclusion as they saw this reframing as a way to make the bill more marketable. However, 350 national queer organizations opposed the exclusion of gender identity from the bill in an act of solidarity with trans communities (National). When looking at the legal rights already won for GLBT people in the United States, Jamison Green points out that there has been no evidence that excluding transgender people makes a bill proposal more easily passable; he states that "civil rights for trans people have been won in a broad range of local jurisdictions […] particularly when GLBT advocates present a united front and work together to plan and implement a coordinated strategy" ("Introduction" 51).
Much like transgender people being pushed to the margins of social movements, people with disabilities have also been marginalized. Several social movements have gained their salience by claiming that they are not disabled. As historian Douglas Baynton argues, "[D]isability has been used as the defining tenet in denying people rights to citizenship and participation in society, disability has functioned for all such groups as a sign of and justification for inequality" (34). Baynton argues that African Americans were considered best suited for slavery because they did not have the capacity to be independent, and that "African Americans were often lumped with the 'defective,' 'delinquent,' and dependent classes" (41) — and all such features are linked to the assumed negative of disability. As Baynton notes, people within movements fighting for civil rights had to separate themselves from the image of being disabled, and this separation did not challenge the oppressive structures behind discrimination based upon disability but occurred because of the stigma attached to being classified as having a disability (51). Challenging hierarchies around privileged bodies, whether for disability or non-normative gender expression, is the way to making real change, instead of dividing communities for the sake of the rights of one group within the community.
While creating distance between groups for the sake of social change has been and still is a part of the way many movements work, there are always instances where successful coalitions are formed. In my experience of working in coalitions between groups of people, one of the biggest advantages is in strength in numbers. For example, during the University of Washington's annual Transgender Awareness Week over the last three years, we worked on making many of the events marketable to a diverse group of people. One way we did this was having sponsorship from the diversity commission for disabilities sponsor events. In the campaign for more gender neutral bathrooms, the uniting issue is access to a public bathroom. The details of access issues for people with disabilities and transgender people differ in some significant ways in terms of spatial room versus gendered markings. However, the issue of inaccessibility based on embodied difference is the important one that creates a point for uniting to change.
In doing any type of intersectional academic work, it is important to acknowledge that while connections can be drawn, some of the specific facets are not the same in the comparison of two subjects. As Eli Clare notes, "[S]ystems of oppression work through similar mechanisms, but the details differ" ("Gaping"). The interconnections I developed in this paper between transgender and disability are meant to be a way to think about coalition-building and framing similarities. I draw attention to and actually name what I would consider to be an organic relationship between two groups. While containing many different people, these groups can be thought of in similar ways because of similar threads of oppression.
Issues of embodied difference cut across many lines of identification and social classification and have implications for those bodies not privileged as "normal." These implications include lower employment rates, inaccessible social institutions and public spaces, civil rights, and social stigma, among many other things. None of these points are new. Many scholars and activists have argued about the importance of investigating these forms of discrimination; my contribution here is to begin to show how connections among these implications play out in transgender communities and in disability communities, although further analysis is necessary. Another example is the emerging transability movement, people who "want to become disabled" (http://www.transabled.org), which is a site where issues about changing bodies and societal norms from disability studies and transgender studies meet. Because of stigma around having a disability, being a transabled person is particularly contentious. This movement could certainly be used to demonstrate further connections between transgender and disability communities.
Both transgender studies and disability studies are becoming more widely studied within universities in the United States. As disability studies and transgender studies grow larger and find more space within academia, attention to the similarities among those and other movements for social change will help facilitate deeper analyses of the workings of oppression as well as means for achieving socio-political change. While in activist circles, coalitions between disability and transgender communities are facilitated all of the time (gender neutral bathroom activism being one of the examples), academia has yet to explore the potentially powerful change connections like this can make.
Ashley Mog graduated in June 2008 from the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle with a BA in Women Studies. She is currently working for the Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT) program on UW's campus and is looking into graduate schools.
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Stealth is a word commonly used in transsexual communities and refers to passing as a gender without publicly (and sometimes privately) acknowledging having transitioned from one gender to another.
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I am choosing to use intersex individuals in this definition of transgender because intersexuals have created alliances with other members of transgender communities, and intersexuality is often included when talking about who is "transgender."
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"Deaf" with a capital "D" refers to someone who identifies with Deaf culture whereas a lowercase "d" refers to physical deafness (Brueggemann 6).
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According to the official Special Olympics website, "Special Olympics and Paralympics are two separate organizations recognized by the International Olympic Committee. The principal differences between the two lie in the disability of participating athletes and levels of ability in sports participation" (2009 World Games).
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