Steve Ferreira, our “I Define Me” award winner for October, lives a life characterized by hopeful determination. From winning gold medals in track and field to pushing for equal representation in the media, Steve takes on the challenges of living with cerebral palsy with indomitable courage and positivity. We were very glad of the opportunity to talk further with Steve about athletics, travel, his growing career and, of course, his positive approach to life.
‘Why Be Afraid of Who You Really Are?’
How did you first learn about Challenge Day?
Challenge Day is a program created by a couple from California in 1987 (before I was born). Their vision is that “every child lives in a world where they feel save, loved and celebrated.” When I was a freshman at Liberty High School in high school in 2003, my high school received a grant to bring Challenge Day to the school. The staff selected about 100 students to participate in the program. The idea was that those who participated would teach the theory behind the program to the other students at the school. My sister and I were two of the students chosen to participate in the program. I learned that everyone sometimes feels different.
I’m sure most kids who participated in the program enjoyed it, but what made you take action? Why did you follow through with the “challenge?”
Having been bullied sometimes in elementary school and middle school, I decided that I wanted to do something to educate people about disabilities. I wrote a speech and started going to different high schools in the area to speak to leadership classes and health classes.
A few years later, I decided I wanted to go one step further and created my nonprofit, Beyond Disabilities. To date, I’ve spoken to elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, colleges, Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, churches, luncheons and more. I also spoke in Taipei, Taiwan at a charity dinner for Christian Salvation Service, which is the organization that facilitated the adoption of myself and my twin sister.
Were you always a sports fan growing up? Did you connect with track & field disciplines by watching the Olympics?
The first sport I did was baseball and I really liked it. There were adaptive teams in the area and we would practice every Saturday. When I was about 15, my mom found an organization called Seattle Adaptive Sports. They had a wheelchair basketball program for youth and I joined the team. We had to travel to different cities to compete.
When I was 18, I was too old for the program and not competitive enough to do adult wheelchair basketball. So, I joined the track and field team and started to throw the discus, shot put and club. The first year I competed nationally, I received three gold medals for my class.
It wasn’t the Olympics that inspired me, but rather the Paralympics.
When did you decide to get serious about athletic competition?
When I realized that I was competitive in field, I started to compete. I trained at the gym in off season and then competed during the spring and summer. In 2008, I made the United States team for the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Jr. division held in New Jersey and I won a Bronze medal for the shot put. That accomplishment helped me to become serious about the sport.
Since then, in 2009, I competed in Switzerland and in 2010, I won the gold medal for discus in the Czech Republic. I’ve competed in the United States since, but my goal is to make Team USA for the Paralympics in Rio in 2016.
How did you get involved with the Seattle Jr. Sonics Wheelchair Basketball Team?
Unfortunately, I didn’t find out about Seattle Adaptive Sports until I was 16. My mom heard about it and checked it out. The first time I went to practice with the Seattle Jr. Sonics team, I had a head-on collision with one of the older players. My wheelchair overturned and everyone came running. I was fine but it was a lot of fun to see all the adults “freak out.”
What advice would you have for someone under 18 who wanted to get into wheelchair basketball? There could be someone reading this who thinks, “I’d love to do that but I don’t know where to start.”
There are many organizations around the country so do a little research to find a team. If wheelchair basketball is not your sport, there are other sports to compete in. Check out the 2016 Paralympics for all the different sports for opportunities that are available. I’ve been involved in baseball, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair rugby and field. There are other sports that I’d like to try such as rowing. It’s a great way to have fun and meet new people.
Most schools offer baseball, basketball, etc. How did you begin training for discus, shot-put, club, etc.? How did you find a coach?
When I first started, it was through Seattle Adaptive Sports. The coach looked at me and didn’t think I’d be able to throw very far. I totally surprised him and became his secret weapon. When I aged out of that team, I started doing a weekly practice during the summer at Club Northwest. I still practice there during the summer. They have an All Comers competition every week. One of my college professors became my coach and then I met another coach who offered to help me. I’m currently looking for a new coach for next year.
There are many things that can be done to promote equality for all. Read more atClick to Tweet this!
How does “raising awareness” benefit people with cerebral palsy?
People see a person with cerebral palsy and they think that they can’t do anything. Raising awareness doesn’t just help me or others with cerebral palsy; it helps all individuals who have some type of disability. People with disabilities are capable of many things. We just accomplish our goals at our own pace.
Why should networks broadcast more disabled sports on television?
Disabled sports are very competitive. People don’t realize this until they actually see a person with a disability compete. Disabled sports deserve more recognition and should be covered on television. Other countries, such as Canada, do broadcast disabled sports on television. The last winter Paralympics did have some air time for sled hockey, but most of the coverage was in the middle of the night, if at all. They did publicize the U.S. winning the gold for sled hockey and that’s a start, but there is so much more.
What was it like to go back to your birth country to give a motivational speech?
It was amazing to go back to Taiwan to speak. The place that arranged my adoption, Christian Salvation Service, found out that I did motivation speaking and arranged for me to speak at their charity dinner in 2012. In addition, I spoke at two high schools and a college. Someone translated what I said which was really interesting. It was the first time back to the country since I was a baby and my mom and twin sister traveled with me. In addition to speaking, we saw a lot of the tourist sites in Taipei and ate some great food.
Do you feel pressure in your attempt to motivate people?
I do not feel pressure when I attempt to motivate people. When you are passionate about something and you love to do it, it gives you motivation to inspire others.
Is speaking in public natural for you or was there a learning curve?
I didn’t know it at the time I started, but public speaking is natural for me. It never made me nervous and I love getting in front of an audience and spreading the word. I do learn something new, however, each time I speak.
Do you have any plans for the immediate future? Are you looking to continue motivational speaking or is there something new on the horizon?
My plans for the immediate future are to continue to spread the word that people with disabilities are capable of doing many things. Sometimes it just looks a little different. I would like to continue motivational speaking and expand my audience. I started speaking to high schools and now speak to a lot of colleges. I would like to start speaking to a younger audience, as well. I believe that my message needs to be heard at the elementary and middle school level, as well as, the high school and college level. I also think it would be motivating to speak to businesses.
My original presentation is “Living a Disabled Life,” but I’ve also started a presentation on “Eradicating Bullying.” These are both programs that can help to make the world a better place.
Are you still competing in sports?
Yes, I am still competing in sports. During the spring is when the track and field season begins. I compete locally at Club Northwest and then there are various track meets that I travel to around the country. I typically go to the Desert Challenge Games in Arizona and the Paralympic Nationals (which are in a different city each year). Next year, the Paralympics are in Rio and I’m training to hopefully make the team. During the off months, I train at the local LA Fitness and I have a trainer at Force 10 Performance.
It’s been 25 years since the passing of the ADA. What more can we do as a culture to promote equality for all?
There are many things that can be done to promote equality for all. The blog that you are creating is an example of promoting equality. People need to have the inspiration to accomplish their goals at their own pace.
If there is one message you’d like to get across to people, what would it be?
People need to not be ashamed of who they are and realize that everyone has some sort of disability whether it’s visible or not visible. Why be ashamed of who you really are?