Beyond Anjali Forber-Pratt’s academic achievements, which culminated with a PhD from the University of Illinois this past May, and even beyond her accomplishments on the racetrack, where as an elite wheelchair racer she earned two bronze medals at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing and also competed at this summer’s London Games, the 28-year-old’s most impressive attribute might just be her unwavering positivity and indomitable spirit.
After all, it’s this strength of character that Forber-Pratt has summoned time and again throughout her remarkable life, whether in bearing down in the final stretch of the 400m or visiting a group of grade-schoolers and inspiring them to celebrate each other’s differences. And it’s also this same attitude that continues to push her not just to be best racer she can be, but the best person she can possibly be.
This would also explain how she managed to add the title of “author” to an already impressive resume. In 2010, Forber-Pratt co-authored the children’s book “All About Sports for Athletes with Physical Disabilities” with Lynn Toomey. The activity book introduces the broad spectrum of wheelchair sports to kids in a fun and interactive way and exemplifies Forber-Pratt’s mission to raise awareness of the differences that make us all unique.
How did the original idea for the children’s book come about?
I just remember being a kid and there wasn’t a lot out there for young kids that really resonated with me. I never picked up a kids’ book and saw a person with a disability or anything. That was a thought in the back of my head for quite some time, and then it really just came down to meeting the right people. The idea grew from there. I met Lynn Toomey, who is the co-author, and she already had a children’s series about sports; it was all about basketball, soccer, and things like that. In our conversations, she said, “Really, there’s nothing out there for people with disabilities?” When I told here there really wasn’t, she asked what I thought about collaborating.
What was the collaboration process like?
It was perfect because she already knew how to build activities and how to connect things in terms of illustrations. I was able to help by providing the content in order to make it authentic. We weren’t going to do this if it wasn’t going to be real.
What motivated you throughout the creative process?
To me, it’s about creating a learning experience that starts a dialogue about differences, as much for the young kid with a disability as for their classmates. I remember being in gym class and not being able to participate. It was a common perception that since I was in a wheelchair, I couldn’t. To be able to educate kids, who are obviously very impressionable, that this is just a difference – that’s why I love the fact that the book is educational.
When the book was released, you visited classrooms to do readings – why was that important to you?
A big part of it is going into the classes and really interacting with them. Obviously, I want to expose them to people in wheelchairs because that’s the whole point. They love it. It gives them a context to understand values of a racing wheelchair versus the kind of wheelchair we see every day. It gives them something new to look at and explore. The reaction to that has been really positive.
Is inspiring the next generation a central component of your mission?
Absolutely. That’s why I do everything that I do. I really feel like these are the future leaders. To educate them at an early age about disabilities, to have that dialogue, is really important. Instead of kids being afraid of different things, they will be educated and encouraged to ask questions and meet somebody who has some differences. That will create a much happier atmosphere in the long run.
You said there was a lack of this kind of material when you were growing up, but were there any other books or other things that you turned to in your formative years that provided you with inspiration or guidance?
The one that I can think of offhand is a book that a friend of mine had shown me that was published by a specific hospital. I remember that it was about a specific girl, about her journey. That was just about the only book out there that related to disabilities. I remember when I got to middle school, the Berenstain Bears books came out with a character in a wheelchair, which I thought was really cool. Other than that, though, there really wasn’t anything out there. What was out there was really medical, talking about “problems” with someone with a disability. There was nothing about the fact that we could read and act and play sports.
Do you have any plans for other kinds of outreach to kids, whether through another book or doing more of these speaking engagements?
It’s funny that you ask that because I’m actually working on the second book. Right now it’s still in the idea phase, but it should get going in the next month or so. That’s the big project right now. I want to do a second book that’s more about the questions that I get from the kids. Just from being in the classroom, it’s such a safe environment for kids to ask whatever is on their mind.
One of my biggest pet peeves, just when I’m out and about, is when parents keep their kids from asking questions about my chair. When that happens, I have a tendency to go over and introduce myself to the kid and say, “Hi my name’s Anjali, you look like you might have a question for me.” To me, that’s a teachable moment. What I’ve found is that, in the classroom, since the parents aren’t there, kids feel free to ask all the questions they have. I always make sure to talk to the teacher beforehand, to let them know that any question that the kids might have is totally fine.