Wheelchair Sports: More Popular Than Ever
By Bruce Knittle
Athletes who participate in wheelchair sports benefit from the competitive and recreational aspects but also often reap rehabilitative rewards as well. And the array of wheelchair sports is expanding and increasing in visibility each year.
In the U.S., 19 percent of the population has a disability and today, there are more opportunities than ever for wheelchair sports participation and athletes competing at all levels. With adaptations to some rules, athletes in wheelchairs participate in basketball, tennis, table tennis, bowling, baseball, rugby and racing. More than 100,000 athletes play wheelchair basketball.
Wheelchair sports began during World War II, as wounded veterans took up basketball. Originally intended for rehabilitative purposes, games expanded to competitive events. A German-born British neurologist, Sir Ludwig Guttmann, the founder and director of the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire, developed competitions that led to the Stoke Mandeville Games. The games eventually became an international event and were the precursor to the Paralympic Games.
Today’s veterans realize that not only are wheelchair sports excellent for rehabilitation purposes but they’re also a part of a healthy lifestyle. The 37th National Veterans Wheelchair Games, held in July in Cincinnati, Ohio. Nearly 600 athletes participated in the competition in a variety of sports. The Paralyzed Veterans of America hosts the event with the goal of rekindling the competitive spirit in its members.
With the Paralympic Games, held last September in Brazil, wheelchair sports entered a new era of popularity. The Paralympic Games are the second-largest sporting event in the world, bested only by the Olympics. In Rio, 4,300 Paralympic athletes participated in 528 events, with wheelchair-specific events in basketball, tennis, rugby and and fencing.
Jim Scheer, the executive director of the Wheelchair Basketball Association, credits the Paralympic Games with helping to raise the profile and popularity of wheelchair basketball. He said, “With the Paralympic Games, plus the support of the U.S. Olympic committee, wheelchair basketball has received more positive feedback than ever.” Scheer also credited NBC for the support and visibility it provided for the sport.
Wheelchair tennis is experiencing notable growth. According to the Tennis Foundation in The Wimbledon Blog, in 2011, only about 50 people in wheelchairs played per week. As of 2015, the number had risen to 500 per week and it continues to grow according to the Tennis Foundation. It is currently played in more than 100 countries.
Suzanne Siegler, one of the pioneers in the instruction of wheelchair tennis, is the former special education coordinator for the New York Junior Tennis League. Siegler started working with tennis professionals 25 years ago on instruction for wheelchair tennis enthusiasts. When she first started her programs, interest was minimal but with significant outreach, momentum gathered. Today, more than 45 wheelchair tennis tournaments are held in the United States according to the United States Tennis Association (USTA), many of which are ITF Level sanctioned events, and more than 170 tournaments were held in more than 40 countries recently, according to USTA.
“There is a great pleasure in seeing smiles on the faces of individuals who did not think they could ever play sports again,” Siegler said.
Evidence that wheelchair sports is gaining even wider adoption comes on the collegiate level. In 2015, for the first time a college conference added intercollegiate athletics for students with disabilities. The Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC) was the first sanctioned conference to provide a range of options for students with disabilities to participate in varsity athletics. Wheelchair sports programs include basketball, rowing, volleyball, and track and field.
Spurred on by the ECAC conference’s outreach to adaptive sports, additional colleges are offering their own sports programs to cater to these student athletes, including the University of Alabama, the University of Arizona, the University of Oregon and the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater.
The recognition that disabled students must be offered sports has expanded in recent years. In 2013, the United States Department of Education issued guidance that schools should “make reasonable” changes to sports programs so that student athletes could play or create separate teams for them.
There are numerous organizations which are also helping further wheelchair sports and improve the lives of many. World Wheelchair Sports (WWS), for example, promotes outdoor fitness opportunities for people with disabilities. Founded in 1990, WWS runs programs and competitions, including wheelchair competitions at the Prefontaine Classic, an Oregon Track Club event, and the annual Oregon Wheelchair Track Championships.
Wheelchair & Ambulatory Sports USA (WASUSA) is dedicated to promoting the growth of wheelchair sports and encourages healthy lifestyles by creating sports opportunities for those with physical disabilities. WASUSA works closely with regional sports associations to develop events for youth and adults. It also sponsors the National Junior Disability Championships, the longest-running competition for athletes with disabilities in the United States.
Technological innovation has enabled adaptive sports, such as wheelchair athletics, to increase in popularity. The development of wheelchairs that are both lighter and stronger has helped fuel the growth of sports such as basketball, soccer and racing. Those who use wheelchairs are learning how simple it can be to be involved in almost any sport. Ongoing advances in engineering have given wheelchair athletes unprecedented opportunities to compete in events.
As a result, the world of wheelchair sports has grown greatly over the past 70 years ago and its future is very bright.