My life as a sports envoy
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The fifth in a six part series from the U.S. Department of State.

Dr. Andrea Woodson-Smith writes about her experiences as one of the first Sports Envoys with a disability to represent the United States.

Hi, my name is Dr. Andrea Woodson-Smith and I was one of the first Sports Envoys with a disability to represent the United States on behalf of the Department of State. In addition to being a Sports Envoy, I’m a proud Associate Professor at a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), North Carolina Central University. Outside of work, I play basketball with the Lincolnway Special Recreation Women’s Basketball team and the Charlottesville Cardinals.  I’ve also played basketball for James Madison University and the 2012 U.S. Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Paralympic Team.

In 2013, my colleague Dr. Becky Clark  and I took a historic trip to Guangzhou, China serving as the  State Department’s first-ever Sports Envoys with disabilities. The purpose of this trip was to promote inclusion and equality of persons with disabilities, especially women and girls in sports, and to discuss disability policy with Chinese leadership. I was profoundly impacted by the exchange and it has expanded my views on disability and gender rights on the other side of the world.

Dr. Andrea Woodson-Smith and Dr. Becky Clark with students in China.

During this groundbreaking trip, we noticed that young girls with disabilities were hesitant to participate in sports activities. I was happy to encourage them that it’s okay to join in on the fun and not be scared.  Although we were in Guangzhou to advance disability rights, gender equality and inclusion, Dr. Clark and I quickly realized that we also served as role models for females with disabilities.

In 2015, with the support of the U.S. Embassy Port Moresby, the State Department’s Sports Diplomacy Division (formerly Sports United) within the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the federations, and the Women in Sport Committee, Karo Lelai (U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program alumna from Papua New Guinea), Sports Envoy Ruthie Bolton and myself organized basketball clinics at five high schools around Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.  Through the clinics, we held training sessions for the men’s and women’s national basketball teams.  In addition to teaching, we also taught new drills and provided valuable coaching lessons on the court.

Most recently, in 2019, I hosted an incoming Sports Visitor delegation from Zimbabwe in North Carolina. This was an incredible experience! The main topics of discussion were athletics, campus recreation, Kinesiology program curricula, adapted sports, and how to increase student participation in sport.

As a person with disabilities, serving as a Sports Envoy has been more rewarding than I could have ever imagined. I’m able to serve my community, both domestically and internationally, and have discussions with people about how they can support persons with disabilities.

The Sports Envoy program is vitally important because it provides an opportunity for countries to engage in strategies, increase inclusion within their organizations and/or agencies. It creates so much growth in people and communities as a whole. Countries around the world are grateful to receive what we as the United States can provide them, so that they too can create and implement opportunities that will impact a nation. I have truly enjoyed being a Sports Envoy and seeing the impact that it has created in different countries.

Dr. Andrea Woodson-Smith chats with a group of students in Botswana.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) legislation has impacted my life differently than most, in that, it brought about a marriage of two people with disabilities. My husband and I met on the 15th Anniversary of the ADA. In addition, I have been able to continue participating in sport through adapted sport. It has given others opportunities to participate in intercollegiate sport and earn an education they may not have been able to earn otherwise. The ADA has also opened up avenues to attend and visit different types of facilities that are now more accommodating to those with disabilities.

The ADA has allowed various organizations within the United States to receive funding to support U.S. athletes to travel internationally to assist those with disabilities to increase their knowledge of physical activity and sport. It allows us to provide services to those who have a high interest in learning about the different sport opportunities and engage in conversation to assist in increasing participation in sport of individuals with disabilities within their countries.

The downside is that it has taken a long time for society to acknowledge the ADA; however, its impact has been great. The ADA was signed into law July 26, 1990 to prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life including jobs, schools, transportation, and other public and private places open to the general public and is still making improvements every year. I’m proud of the progress that the United States has made towards supporting persons with disabilities and even more excited to see the United States continue to advance support for persons with disabilities.

The State Department and its Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has been instrumental in advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities and I am happy that I could contribute by participating in and supporting its exchanges. Happy birthday, ADA!

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