He was never meant to run.
At 23 months of age, David Howe had missed a crucial developmental milestone. He wasn’t walking. At The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, doctors diagnosed him with hemiplegia – a type of Cerebral Palsy that affects muscle movement on one vertical half of the body. They told his parents their son would lead a sedentary life.
Today, the four-time Paralympian recalls that day as a fork in the road for his family, one that set him on a path to athletics, academia and advocacy.
“It was the late 1960s and doctors were pretty adamant I wouldn’t be physically active. Their reasoning was to have my right ankle fused. My father was a local track coach and he knew I wouldn’t be able to run if that happened, that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy a physically active life,” said Howe, who joined the School of Kinesiology as a professor in November.
“My father became agitated with the medical system and he looked after my physical therapy at home. Every day, we got up an hour before the rest of the family and he helped my body. The cultural critic in me would say he was trying to normalize my body by making it as normal as possible, but in a way, he was making it as good as possible to be a sportsman in the future.”
It was a good fit; the repetitive mechanics of running were like a metronome for Howe’s impairment. Thanks to his father, he quickly learned and fell in love with the sport. It wasn’t long until Howe was running competitively around the world, landing a spot at the 1988 Seoul, 1992 Barcelona, 1996 Atlanta and 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games. In Seoul, he won a bronze medal in the 5,000m Cross Country race (C7). In Barcelona, Howe took home a silver for the 5,000m.
But Howe has been participating in sport off the track for almost as long as he has been running. While recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon, as graduate student at the University of Toronto, he discovered an interest in sport medicine, eventually pursuing it to a PhD at University College London. His dissertation focused on the intersection of sport, medicine, the body and high-performance athletes.
While working with athletes and tracking ethnographies of pain and injury, Howe couldn’t help but reflect on his own experience in sport, his own body and his own interactions with the medical system.
“The connection is the body – the social body. Often, growing up, I would be seen as different, abnormal, marginalized in social situations because of my impairment. It came to me wondering, how was this affecting me socially,” he said.
However unrelated to his research at the time, Howe began collecting data on disability in sport more than two decades ago. He wrote about his experiences, limitations and body but did so in “an amateur way,” purely out of interest, and certainly not for academic purposes. He couldn’t have studied disability in sport as a graduate student because it would have hit too close to home. But as time passed, the divide between his personal and academic lives grew smaller.
“Eventually, I came out of the closet, really, as a disabled academic. I went to a conference and delivered a paper, for the first time, in the early 2000s on Paralympic sport. The research I am interested in now is in sport and social impact; that’s a very broad area. I am looking at disability, physical activity, culture and sport as a way of addressing some of those issues,” he explained.
“The raison d’etre for me is a celebration of difference. It’s much bigger than disability; it’s much bigger than sport. We need to celebrate difference in sport and in physical activity. It’s really important that we work to tease out the positive social impact of being physically active. It’s important for encouraging people of different ethnicities, diverse abilities and class backgrounds to engage in physical activity because otherwise, our bodies will become redundant.”