by Julie Shull
Watching the Rio Paralympics this week, I’ve been in awe of what humans are capable of. Not only have these athletes overcome physical challenges, but they’ve faced them with more mental and emotional strength that I can imagine. I’ve also been touched to see the incredible communities of support that have helped these athletes excel. Every single athlete has honed their skills with help from their family, friends, coaches, teammates, and health professionals. They haven’t just persevered in the face of adversity; they’ve thrived. And for Paralympians who were adopted, their future could have been radically different.
Adopted Paralympians You Should Know
Tatyana McFadden. Born in St. Petersburg with spina bifida and paralysis from the waist down. Adopted at 6 years old. As of yesterday, she is now a five-time Paralympic gold medalist, and a 14-time world champion. Her sister Hannah was born in Albania with a bone deformity and was adopted shortly after birth. Both sisters compete globally in track and field.
Jessica Long. Born with fibular hemimelia in Siberia. Adopted from Russia at 13 months old. Today, she is a swimmer and the second-most decorated Paralympian in U.S. history.
Oksana Masters. Born near Chernobyl with radiation-induced birth defects. Adopted from a Ukrainian orphanage at 7 years old. This year, she’s competing in her third Paralympic Games as a cyclist.
Tatyana (L) and Hannah McFadden (R) prepare to race together at the 2012 London Paralympic Games. © Getty Images
Why Adoption Matters
In many nations, not every parent has access to professional support and financial resources to care for a child with physical or mental limitations. One way or another, these children often end up in orphanages where they receive some medical attention, but not necessarily the one-on-one care they would receive in a family-based setting. Studies have shown that children who grow up in institutions—even for a very short amount of time—face cognitive and social developmental delays that can be difficult to overcome later in life. For millions of special needs children living in orphanages, adoption can give them an opportunity to thrive in a family—particularly when that family is well-equipped with pre-adoption education and post-adoption support. As Oksana Masters says, “My mom literally saved my life…I wasn't supposed to make it out of the orphanage."1
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
For many children adopted from other countries, reconnecting with one’s heritage can be very important in establishing a more solid sense of identity. Jessica Long and Tatyana McFadden have both taken a big step and reconnected with their birth families in Russia. NBC Sports followed swimmer Jessica Long as she travelled to Russia to visit the orphanage she lived in and meet her birth parents and siblings for the first time.2 She says, “When I first see my Russian family, I want them to know that I’m not angry with them. That I’m not upset that they gave me up for adoption. I think that was really brave. And I don’t know what I would have done if I was in her situation, at 16 and having this disabled baby that they knew that they couldn’t take care of… If anything, I have so much love for her.” You can watch their tearful reunion here. In Sochi in 2012, Jessica's fellow athlete, adoptee, and friend Tatyana McFadden won gold in cross-country skiing while her birth mother and adoptive mother cheered for her side-by-side.3
While reconnecting with one’s birth family is not always possible, there are other ways to help adopted children connect with their heritage. For children, culture camps for adoptees are a great way to learn about their birth culture alongside other children who share similar adoption experiences.
Jessica Long meets her birth mother for the first time. © NBC Sports
Will You Raise a Future Paralympian?
Thousands of children – including those with special needs – are waiting for adoptive families. If you’re considering adoption, check out our infographic on the adoption process or visit our foster care and intercountry adoption pages to learn more. If you’re ready to take the next step and want to talk with an adoption agency, our NCFA Member search tool can help you find a professional.
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