Chloe Toscano is a writer for Allure Magazine and a professional swimmer in the Paralympics. She speaks with us about ableism and 'unseen' disabilities.
“When I went to college, I joined the swimming team. But during my sophomore year, I had an accident that caused paralysis in my left arm. I still decided to keep swimming because it was an outlet and a form of physical therapy for me. Things were different though.”
“I always tried to qualify with the speed times given to other swimmers, but I struggled because I would be off by just a couple of seconds.”
“Also, I needed help sometimes getting out of the pool or taking my racing suit off. It was difficult, but then our team got a new coach, and she helped me learn how to swim without my arm brace, and eventually, I entered the Paralympics. The Paralympics was a completely new world for me. There were so many different people experiencing so many different things. It was all so new and inclusive, and the energy was so positive. I vividly remember my very first meet.”
“I met a female athlete who had no legs, and I met another who was blind. One time, I was having a hard time getting my race suit off, and they both started helping me. It was just the coolest thing ever, and I loved it. Being in the Paralympics helped me with self-confidence and strength. It was just nice to be in an environment where I could ask for help without having to explain myself when I needed it. Being in an environment that normalized disabilities really helped me accept everything."
"I don’t see the Paralympics as being centered around disability. I see it as being centered around strength and empowerment whilst having one - despite what society tells you. Competing in the Paralympics helped me own my limitation. It was definitely a game-changer."
While swimming has been a significant part of Chloe’s journey, she also discusses the impact of beauty and body positivity.
“After my accident, one of the things that I struggled with the most was doing my own hair. Before I used to play with it a lot, and I used to change it every day. I couldn’t do that anymore, so I started dying my hair. Hair dye allows me to find joy in playing with my hair without using two arms. When you use beauty as a tool to help navigate your feelings, it can be really great. However, there’s a fine line between using beauty as a means for compensation versus a tool for empowerment. I used to feel like my skin and everything else about me had to be perfect just to make up for my disability.”
“But, that’s not the truth.”
“If something makes you feel stronger, that’s good, but it’s not healthy to set beauty standards on yourself.”
Chloe goes on to explain her excitement and concern about the body positivity movement.
“When the body positivity movement first started, it applied a lot to weight and size, but that’s just one side to a person. There are so many things that make up a person. The scope of “body positivity” really lacks definition when it comes to disabilities. And even when the body positivity movement does include people with disabilities, it’s still not always very inclusive because there are many disabilities that you can’t see and that get overlooked.”
“For example, my arm isn’t noticeable at first glance, but that doesn’t make it any less valid. It’s super noticeable to me because I live with it. I think body positivity is a lot about learning to understand and accept yourself as you are, not just as other people see you. It’s about believing that your best is enough. Once you do that, it helps other people around you believe that.”
Chloe continues to explain the difficulties of living in an ableist society, even in body positive spaces.
“Ableism is difficult to define because it’s confusing. Why would you belittle me because I have one arm or because I need help with something? Obviously, there are just some things that you can’t do as well with one arm. If you need to ask for help, you’re not weaker for it. Even if you’re completely able-bodied, you’re going to need to ask for help at some point too.”
Chloe continues to express how ableism can also be expressed through so-called compliments.
“When people call me “amazing” or “brave’ for having a disability, it feels kind of condescending and patronizing even though I know it’s coming from a place of kindness. It comes across like this: “Wow! It’s so inspirational that you left the house today to go on with your normal day despite the fact that you’re different. Good for you!”
“It comes across wrong because everyone has differences, and I don’t even see my disability as something that makes me different. I see it as something that contributes to who I am just like my hair or the shape of my nose. I mean you wouldn’t go up to someone and say - “wow, you left the house today even though you have blue eyes, and that’s rare. Good for you!” People don’t say that because that would be weird.”
“We’re just going about our day. It’s okay to talk about disabilities, but everyone’s different. You might wonder if someone with a disability needs help, but it’s important to gauge how comfortable the person is to discuss that.”
Chloe thinks it’s extremely important to normalize conditions and disabilities.
“It’s all a matter of perspective. When you have a disability, you have to ask for help like anyone else, only for different things. Just because someone operates differently doesn’t mean that they are lesser. Some people even think that you can’t be healthy while you have a disability. For instance, when I have to catch a flight, I usually pre-board because it’s easier for me that way to put my bag in the bin, and the flight attendants are always like - “why are you preboarding? You look too healthy. What’s wrong with you?”
And I’m always like - “I can’t look healthy and have a disability?”
I also have a friend who is a bilateral amputee, and sometimes people tell her that she looks too pretty to be an amputee. What does that even mean, and how are people setting these standards? Anyone can be beautiful. There are no magical rules that make a person less worthy of being beautiful than someone else. Being beautiful and being enough is for everyone.”