Anne-Dorte Andersen – A strong voice for the empowerment of girls and women with disabilities

Anne-Dorte Andersen. Photo courtesy of Anne-Dorte Andersen.

Anne-Dorte Andersen is a former participant of the Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP) founded by the U.S. Department of State. She is a pioneer and a role-model for girls, women, persons with disabilities, and for Danish society at large. Here, she aims to facilitate inclusion, acceptance, and fun, especially for kids and young persons with disabilities. We have had a conversation with her about her experiences with GSMP. This is her story. 

Swimmer, Paralympic medalist, Project Coordinator 

Anne-Dorte works for Parasport Danmark – an organization whose goal is to develop sporting opportunities for persons with disabilities. She herself has Dysmelia, which means she was born without hands and feet. At an early age, she started swimmingbecame an elite swimmer and eventually member of the Danish Paralympic Swim Team. In 1988, 1992 and 1996 she participated in the Paralympic Games and has won both Paralympic bronze and silver.

In 2011 Anne-Dorte began her job as a project coordinator on one of Parasport Danmark’s talent programsOne day, the U.S. Embassy called the organization looking for a potential GSMP candidate who was a womanproject coordinator, had a disability, and someone who had participated in the Paralympic Games or in other ways taken the lead in founding an initiativeLuckily, I was the only one who fit that description,” Anne-Dorte says. “But what luck!” 

Sports and sisterhood 

Anne-Dorte doing aerial yoga with her fellow GSMP participants. Photo courtesy of Anne-Dorte Andersen.
Anne-Dorte doing aerial yoga with her fellow GSMP participants. Photo courtesy of Anne-Dorte Andersen.

The Global Sports Mentoring Program works to create more opportunities for women and girls to express themselves through sports. Each year, the program gives a select number of women from all over the world the chance to participate in a five week mentoring program in the United States. In 2014, Anne-Dorte Andersen was one of them.  

She was excited to participate in the program. Early in the process she met one of her idols – Paralympic champion Ann Cody, who is also a member of the International Paralympic Committee and Program Officer in the U.S. Department of State. “Already then I thought, “wow!”, Anne-Dorte says.  

But initially, she was also struck with a hint of skepticism. This feeling hit her after she got accepted into the program and noticed that the informational e-mails she received referred to her fellow participants as her “sisters” and family. However, those doubts quickly went away, she says. I have to admit I thought, what is this, am I going to be part of a “family” and “sisters? But during those 5 weeks, I understood and experienced thcompletely unique community that this program builds. 

Equality, opportunity, and following your dreams 

In addition to creating unique connections between participants from all over the world, one of GSMP’s main goals is to develop ways to make sport a tool to achieve equality. Anne-Dorte explains that before she joined the program she thought to herself: in Denmark that is going pretty well already. She continues: “But truth be told, by meeting all the others (GSMP participants, red.) it became clear to me that we do still have a lot of barriers as women and as persons with disabilities. My world opened, and suddenly I didn’t always feel like a minority. Being a part of this opened my world. 

According to Anne-Dorte, being part of the Global Sports Mentoring Program is one of those experiences that really shape you as a person. In her experience, the program is a personal, empowering learning process, which inspires participants to have difficult, but necessary, conversations with people and organizations about how to make this world a better and more multifarious place through sports. “Sports teach us social learning,” she says. “Sports teach us how to win and lose, they teach us about inclusion and accept – and, for persons with disabilities especially, they teach us accepting our own bodies”. 

Bunot only that – the program has also taught Anne-Dorte how to communicate these messages, she says. “It has helped me consider how I can, with a stronger voice, create opportunities for women and girls with disabilities. What can I do to make sure they get a chance in this world, figure out what they are good at and what they like to do, and then help them follow that dream?” 

Dividing into two: Empowering women and people with disabilities 

Anne-Dorte was part of the third round of participants on the Global Sports Mentoring Program. At that time, 50 women in total had been part of the program, but as the program has continued every year since, that number is now at 200. When Anne-Dorte participated in 2014, she and one other woman, Lizzie Kiama from Kenya, were the only two women with disabilities participating in the program. 

Back then, the GSMP’s main focus was on empowering women through sports. But following Anne-Dorte and Lizzie’s participation, the GSMP became inspired to divide into two: The Empower Women Program for female sports leaders, and the Sport for Community Program for parasport athletes and leaders, which is focused on disability rights. Anne-Dorte is proud and honored to have been an inspiration for the establishment of this newer program, she says. It is really great, because I have always thrived in being a pioneer and a trailblazer and to help break ground on projects like that and on this level. That is what drives me. So I am eternally grateful for getting that chance.” 

Entering into an inspiring dialogue

During those five weeks in the U.S., the participants were tasked with developing an action plan for when they got home, Anne-Dorte explains.

Anne-Dorte and her fellow GSMP participants. Notice the t-shirts that say "Empower Women Through Sports." Photo courtesy of Anne-Dorte Andersen.
Anne-Dorte and her fellow GSMP participants. Notice the t-shirts that say “Empower Women Through Sports.” Photo courtesy of Anne-Dorte Andersen.

“And I was told that of course I was there on an equal basis with the other participants, but that they would like me to encourage the others to be more focused on inclusion when developing their action plans. So that it would be evident after five weeks that the other women had also thought to include women and girls with disabilities in their plans. That was very exciting and interesting; to both get a lot of input and experience from the others, but to also enter into a dialogue with the women I met.” 

A network for life 

According to Anne-Dorte, one of the greatest gifts this program has given her has been a strong, inspirational network of friends and connections from all over the world, which is still active today. On Anne-Dorte’s trip to the U.S. they were 17 women from 15 different countries. That meant that some of the other women came from societies that view persons with disabilities from a very different perspective than in Denmark. She explains:  

“A good number of the other participants had never worked with a person with a disability, and it was new to them to be on the same course as us. In some countries persons with disabilities are not part of society and are not viewed as resourceful people. With the Danish mentality, that was maybe a little bit of a challenge. Because I just came and was very open and honest and “here I am” and took off my prostheses.”   

In the same boat

Anne-Dorte mentions that because some of the other women were not used to spending time with a person with a disability, in the beginning some of them saw her as a person who needed help and offered to assist her. While this initially provoked her, she soon realized that being viewed by others as someone who was helpless was a feeling all her fellow participants were also struggling with. “I realized that being women leaders in the world of sport meant that we were all in the same boat, because they experienced just as many barriers that I do as a person with a disability in Denmark. So we were able to assist each other in growing and moving forward. It made me humble and grateful towards all the women who have helped me become the person I am today.”

Anne-Dorte continues to note that the program teaches you that nobody caovercome these barriers alone. Instead, having a network of mutual support and inspiration, like the one she now has among fellow GSMP participants, is necessary. She adds: “Even though I was a little bit skeptical about the whole “familiy” and “sisterhood” terminology in the beginning, I know now what they were doing and what they wanted us to do: To open out hearts. Because if we open our hearts and are more open towards each other, then we can do so much more in the world.”