Spring Sports for People Living with Paralysis

Whether it is participating in a competitive sport or a recreational workout, spring brings a wider range of activities for all levels of injury. Handcycling and wheelchair tennis have been popular options over the years, and recently, sports like baseball, adaptive golf, and power soccer are beginning to develop across the United States.

Field of dreams
The Miracle League of Greater New Orleans was a recipient of a Quality of Life Grant from the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation in 2011. According to Executive Director, Gina Lorio, the goal of the league is to "provide opportunities for disabled children and adults who are unable to participate in regular sports leagues and to enjoy the emotional and physical benefit of being part of a team sport."

Specifically, the grant helped support the Miracle Field, a custom-designed sports field that accommodates wheelchairs and other walking assistance devices. The field enables those living with disabilities to hit, run, catch, and kick. Sportsmanship, safety, and a level playing field for every athlete are some of the key values upheld by the Miracle League.

Originally, the Miracle Field was intended for baseball games because that enabled the greatest number of people to participate; however, the program has also expanded to incorporate soccer to give the participants another sense of a team sport. Both baseball and soccer have modified rules on the Miracle Field to enable as many people as possible to participate.

Lorio explains that in baseball, "every player bats once each inning, all players are safe on the bases, every player scores a run before the inning is over (last one up gets a home run), and each team wins every game." Soccer, sometimes referred to as power soccer, is played where, "there are no goalkeepers to block a goal. Players using wheelchairs use large soccer balls on a shorter field allowing easier play. No score is kept and every team is considered a winner."

Both sports have been modified in a way that allows almost all injury levels to partake. Lorio also states that the idea of a non-competitive approach to sport is to "allow participants to learn, recognize, and appreciate diversity, personality, and style within the individuals of a team or group. This also helps in building cohesiveness, connections and understanding of other team members, stimulating creative idea-generation and problem solving, and having fun."

In addition to baseball and soccer, the Miracle Field is also used to play wheelchair basketball. Historically, wheelchair basketball has been one of the most popular sports for those living with paralysis. The rules on the Miracle Field are modified for children so that, "every player scores at least one basket. Little Tyke hoops are used for the more physically challenged players and no score is kept. Each team wins every game," explains Lorio.

Typically, wheelchair basketball for adults is played on a full size court and with a ten foot hoop. Dribbling requires the player to bounce the ball at least once within two rolls of his or her wheels. There are various rules and fouls that make wheelchair basketball unique; however, the essence of the game is unchanged.

(If you haven't already seen it, check out this incredible commercial by Guinness that features a group of friends playing wheelchair basketball together.)

Auburn University's adapted sports program used its 2009 Reeve Foundation Quality of Life Grant to promote physical activity, a healthy lifestyle, and competition for those living with disabilities. Doctoral student, Jared Rehm explains, "The idea was that sport brings people to physical activity and helps them to develop healthy habits in a fun way that ensures commitment to the process of being healthy."

As far as playing wheelchair tennis goes, anyone with lower limb impairment is able to compete. The only modification to the rules is that the ball can bounce twice on one side before it needs to be returned. The first bounce must be within the court; however, the second does not have to be.

Initially, tennis was the main focus of the grant because, "it was readily available to us to begin the program," says Rehm. "I had a good deal of experience playing and it being an individual sport allowed us to have the program without needing many more people initially. The hope was that this would lead into more opportunities as we involved more people, which it has." The grant has helped Auburn raise awareness on campus that there are physical activity opportunities for those living with disabilities.

Adaptive Golf
Adaptive golf is a spring sport favored by many as part of Brooks Adaptive Sports and Recreation Program at Brooks Rehabilitation in Jacksonville, FL. Brooks Rehabilitation received a 2011 Reeve Foundation Quality of Life grant to support its adaptive golf program removing barriers for the disability community, providing adaptive golf equipment and carts, and one-on-one golf instruction on the driving range. Individuals of all ages and skill levels living with quadriplegia, paraplegia, Multiple Sclerosis, stroke, traumatic brain injury, and amputation benefit from the program.

The transformation of participants is often remarkable. "It is so cool to watch them take the club in their hand and hear the click of the ball," explains Alice Kraus, Manager of Brooks Adaptive Sports and Recreation Program. "They come up doubting, anxious, and depressed. To see participants who look like their disability wouldn't allow them to do this, are driving 60 to 70 yards!"

Krauss also notes the importance of camaraderie between the participants, families, and caregivers. "As an Occupational Therapist, I developed a program intentionally designed for not only physical fitness needs, but something that is equally significant to their social, emotional, educational, and spiritual needs."

The atmosphere that is part of Brooks' adaptive golf program provides the ability to compete and excel and also the opportunity to be socially connected and learn from others. "Be it the caregiver or the individual living with the disability, the program offers inclusion for family and friends," says Krauss. "It is not just the individual living with the disability that is impacted."

Ultimately, there is more to sports than just the activity. As Krauss explains of adaptive golf, "This is a holistic based quality of life initiative that happens to use sports as a vehicle to reach individuals, their families, and friends that have been impacted by disability."

While there are many individual sports, many spring sports are also collaborative welcoming the opportunity to spend time with other individuals living with paralysis, caregivers, friends, and families. Assisted Cycling Tours, located in Arvada, CO knows all about the importance of bringing people together. They received a Reeve Foundation Quality of Life Grant in 2011 to purchase four handcycles. (Handcycling is similar to bicycling with the difference being the vehicle is powered by hand cranks for arms.)

The handcycles are used as part of local programs and clinics and are for everyone from beginners to longer day trips. The ultimate goal is to eventually create overnight trips outside of Colorado.

The main objective of Assisted Cycling Tours is showing participants what they can do, what is possible. This is accomplished by often times focusing on caregivers and families. "We show them that this community is capable of doing this," explains Bob Matter, Executive Director of Assisted Cycling Tours. "If they are capable of handcycling, then what else are they capable of doing that you're not already giving them credit for? This gives the family something to do together that they didn't think they had the ability to do prior."

To Matter and his organization, the handcycles signify much more than just an activity. They are helping individuals see what their potential is.

"The story of our organization takes place in a 20-foot span," says Matter. "At first, adults and kids are so compelled to get on bike. They're crying and terrified because they have either never been encouraged to it, or they did it once and had bad experience. They are drawn to the handcycles, yet terrified. Inevitably, in every clinic, every or ride we do, we have somebody who is in the corner screaming and crying. And eventually I can get them to the bike. They get on bike and they're still crying and screaming. Within 20-feet it changes to smiles and laughing! They're saying, 'This is the coolest thing I've ever done!'"

Learn More
To find adaptive sports programs in your area, search our Quality of Life Grants Program database.