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Boundless determination

Wheelchair sports advocates are steadily toppling barriers

Champion Digital | By Brian Hendrickson

Wheelchair basketball players, and other athletes with disabilities, are motivated by a desire to prove their competitiveness and athletic ability is equal to their able-bodied peers.

Snow coated the ground and winter weather bit cheeks and noses as Gail Gaeng and her five older siblings shoveled off an improvised basketball court on the patio outside their Maryland home. Roxie Gaeng called for her children to come inside, but even as the sun dipped below the horizon, the kids would find a way to continue the games into the night.

Childhood competitions raged constantly around the Gaeng household. Athletics ran thick in their bloodline. Every member of the family competed in college sports, starting with their father, Brian, who played lacrosse at Roanoke. Their mother, Roxie, played soccer at Slippery Rock. Sisters Erin and Paige followed their mother’s soccer career, while brothers Drew and Deke played basketball. Clare, fifth in the Gaeng family chain and two years older than Gail, kept that streak alive when she committed to play lacrosse at Lock Haven.

Gail grew up at the end of that ticker-tape of accomplishments. She was an eager ball girl and adjunct teammate. She tagged along to practices when Brian coached his children at an early age. And she led the cheers when Erin won a state soccer championship and her other siblings received scholarship offers.

But Gail questioned if she could follow those footsteps. Doctors believe a viral infection during Roxie’s pregnancy affected nerve development in Gail’s legs, disrupting coordination in her lower extremities. She played youth basketball with the help of braces and developed into a sharp shooter with a keen understanding of the game. But as she grew older, Gail couldn’t get past the midline on a regulation court before seeing her teammates sprinting back toward her to play defense. Her parents fielded suggestions that Gail manage a team, but they knew she was too competitive to entertain the suggestion.

Mike Frogley, Illinois men’s wheelchair basketball coach, often hears spectators marvel over the athleticism the game brings out of the players.

“It’s pressure being the only one,” Gail said. “I would always … be missing something to connect with my family because we’ve all been through that dedication.”

Yet today the sophomore proudly wears a University of Illinois, Champaign, jersey, rounding out her family’s collegiate athletics tradition as one of the Illini’s leaders. She’s a scrappy hustler on the basketball court, hitting the floor for loose balls, directing the offense with a cool head and remaining unintimidated in physical battles. Her brothers lightly joke that her arms are bigger than theirs, but they can’t deny her skills after Gail’s junior club smoked them during a pick-up game in high school.

It hardly matters that a wheelchair provided those opportunities.

Gaeng is now one of fewer than 200 athletes competing in wheelchair basketball on one of the 12 collegiate programs that make up the Intercollegiate Division of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. They range from Division II varsity teams at Southwest Minnesota State and Edinboro to programs operating outside the athletics department at Alabama, Auburn, Missouri and Illinois. They are small in numbers, at times unrecognized on their own campuses. But they are all motivated by the desire to be recognized as legitimate athletes.

Earning that recognition, however, has been arduous. Veteran athletes spin yarns of competing invisibly while fighting discriminatory perceptions of being weak and disinterested in competition. Yet advocates of disability sports − from basketball to track and field − see their fight for equal opportunity nearing a turning point. They see a society that is becoming more accepting and inclusive. Paralympians are now recognized in marketing campaigns for their athletics achievements. Key lawsuits in the past decade have forced high schools around the country to expand opportunities for disabled students to compete. And new guideline clarifications from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil rights affirmed their rights to compete in scholastic programs.

The changes have steadily increased the population of disabled adolescents who grow up identifying themselves as athletes,

Now they wonder, with cautious anticipation, how long it might take before those athletes come knocking at the doors of their local universities and force a change their advocates view as inevitable: wheelchair sports becoming an official part of the athletics programs at NCAA member schools.

 

A QUIET EVOLUTION

Lew Shaver insists his demanding style would make Bob Knight swoon. But with his slender build and thin, gray hair, the Southwest Minnesota State coach spoke softly, more like a caring grandfather, as he gathered the Mustangs together Oct. 26 in preparation for the tactical and physical onslaught they would face that night against Illinois.

Any of the players surrounding Shaver that night could be the subject of tear-jerking feature stories. Senior Derek Klinkner was an all-conference linebacker for the Mustangs football team before a 3,000-pound water tank fell on his back during a farm accident that left him with reduced mobility in his legs. Next to him was junior Trisha Kienitz, a member of the Southwest Minnesota State golf team who was born without a lower-right leg. Other players on the floor competed with birth defects and injuries incurred in auto accidents − tales of triumph that usually draw attention. Shaver bristles whenever his athletes are viewed purely in those terms of courage through adversity. There’s so much more, if outsiders would only take the time to see what he’s seen.

Illinois wheelchair basketball opened the door for Gail Gaeng (left) to compete, like the rest of her family, in collegiate sports. Southwest Minnesota State coach Lew Shaver (middle) has seen players like Savoy Brown (right) change perceptions.

It started almost by accident, on a walk to the health and physical education offices in 1969 during Shaver’s first month as a safety educator. The school opened two years earlier amid the sprawling farmland of Marshall, Minn., where Shaver’s friends say you can see the edge of the world from town, if you aren’t already there. Disabled students found a comfortable home in this setting. The school’s design defined accessibility, with interconnected buildings and wheelchair access ramps running end to end. It was years ahead of its time.

Shaver saw two young students talking to the school’s health director as he approached. One was in a wheelchair; another was a post-polio student supporting himself with crutches. They wanted to start a wheelchair basketball program, so the director pointed to Shaver, a former high school basketball coach, and dropped the request in his unsuspecting lap.

Shaver never had encountered wheelchair basketball, but that wasn’t unusual. The sport started in the 1940s as veterans disabled during World War II battles started returning home and searching for activities. But outside Illinois, the nation’s first collegiate program, the game largely remained a recreational activity confined to community groups and veterans hospitals. Patients often learned about the sport through rehabilitation therapists; coaches were mostly volunteers.

But Shaver joined a handful of coaches, such as Brad Hedrick at Illinois and Dan

Alabama’s intense workouts are as grueling as those of the school’s other sports.

Byrnes at Wright State, who found a beauty in the game and helped professionalize the sport. They developed coaching philosophies, compiled their strategies into instructional manuals and organized camps. They watched the game grow quietly and discovered in it a power that no victory or championship could match.

The programs attracted kids who grew up in a society that looked at their wheelchairs and considered only their lost abilities. The kids felt marginalized, putting them at risk for long-term social and health challenges. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimates that 37.6 percent of Americans with disabilities are clinically obese, compared with 26.6 percent of able-bodied individuals. It also found increased risks for depression and preventable health problems. Additionally, the Department of Health and Human Services found that 56 percent of people with disabilities do not engage in physical activity, and just 23 percent are active for at least 30 minutes three or more times per week.

Wheelchair basketball offered an antidote. It reinforced players’ self-esteem and reduced problems with depression and obesity. Academic performances improved, and their perception of disabilities upended.

Shaver states the impact bluntly: “We save lives,” he said.

It could be taken as hyperbole without the testimony of players like Kyle Killworth, a member of the Alabama men’s wheelchair team who was born without a right leg, probably the result of chickenpox his mother contracted during pregnancy.

Killworth isolated himself before his parents nudged him to try the sport, often withdrawing to his room and fantasizing about a world in which he wasn’t disabled. Only basketball ended his despair. He now admits to spending more time in the gym some weeks than he does in his bed. The nuances of strategy – how speed, matchups and position blend to create a successful play – fascinate Killworth. He chats X’s and O’s with anyone interested to illustrate the beauty and meaning he finds in the sport.

“I’m not opposed to being an inspiration,” Killworth said. “But people who do it to be an inspiration are playing the game for the wrong reasons.”

Spectators are quick to spot the serious athletic skill, too. Newcomers are often stunned to see wheelchair athletes spilling onto the floor during violent collisions or rolling full speed through a crowd at the baseline before spinning to take an open shot. It defies their predisposed images of frailty and opens their minds to what people with disabilities can do, in a setting where it is easy to comprehend the required skill.

“When they see someone make five 3’s, everyone in that stadium knows that is a difficult skill whether you’re standing or in a chair,” said Hedrick, now director of disability resources and educational services at Illinois. “You still don’t leave the gym understanding a lot more about a spinal injury, but you leave that gym understanding a lot more about the abilities of that person who has a spinal injury.”

But while the sport held the power to reshape perceptions, the opportunities were scarce. The fight for recognition trudged, like an arduous march through knee-deep mud. In an era when women were first breaking down the barriers of gender discrimination, disabled athletes were fighting similar battles. Stigmas held that people with disabili ties weren’t interested in athletics competition, even though many athletes traveled an hour or more to compete with the nearest basketball team. Others suggested they posed a safety risk. Society pegged them as weak and damaged.

Ann Cody, a former Illinois basketball player and now director of policy and global outreach for BlazeSports America, which advocates for the development of wheelchair and adapted sports programs, remembers playing games in the 1980s in gymnasiums she considered marginal for high school events. The arenas often lacked scoring and timing equipment, and they housed courts that didn’t meet college-regulation dimensions. Their competitions in the Paralympics were never − and still are not − televised.

“The reason we were kind of stuck in those off-the-beaten path facilities is because we were essentially invisible,” Cody said. “There weren’t spectators. There wasn’t media even covering the final scores of the tournament. We didn’t exist as far as the general public knew.”

 

FROM EVOLUTION TO REVOLUTION

The orange hue of dawn cracked across the Champaign, Ill., horizon as the thunderous echoes rolled through Memorial Stadium. Most of the campus was still snoozing. But the commotion reverberating through the Illinois football stadium sounded like the continuous rearrangement of heavy equipment.

While the Illinois wheelchair basketball teams roll up the Memorial Stadium ramps early in the morning, Illini football players sometimes spot the grueling workout and nod their approval.

Gail Gaeng bent forward in her wheelchair inside the stadium concourse. She pushed furiously for 20 torturous seconds up the steep ramps leading to the upper deck, grunting with each forceful push until she heard a whistle blow. Gaeng then turned her chair around, wiped sweat from her forehead with her left arm and with businesslike ease rolled back down the ramp to prepare for another 20-second sprint.

Senior Hiroaki Kozai can sometimes feel his arms going numb and his core muscles tightening during the conditioning drill. He’s competed for the Japanese Paralympic team and started the sport playing against adult athletes twice his age, so intense competition isn’t new. Yet when he arrived at Illinois last year, two Japanese players immediately warned him about the ramps. “I was scared,” Kozai said.

The drill sets a program standard, though. When Illinois won the 2008 national championship, senior Matt Buchi clipped the net and raised it to his nose, telling teammates, “Hey guys, it smells like ramps.” As the Illinois football players arrive for their workouts, they sometimes spot the wheelchair players on the ramps and nod their respectful approval.

“If you can’t realize that that’s equal (to other sports),” Gaeng said, “then I don’t really know how else we can explain it to you.”

But that battle for recognition continues despite significant advances in the last decade. Grass-roots organizations, such as BlazeSports America − a legacy of the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta − and the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs, helped develop athletics opportunities nationally by working with recreational and scholastic organizations. They also educate coaches and athletic trainers and prepare them to work with the unique needs of the disabled population.

Their efforts helped expand access to athletics for youths around the country. The National Wheelchair Basketball Association estimates the number of teams competing in its national junior division has increased nearly 90 percent since 1999 and now includes about 85 teams. And a dozen states now offer some type of athletics programming for students with disabilities at the high school level.

But it often required the brute force of lawsuits to enact change, including a string of legal challenges from Maryland to Minnesota over the past decade that helped multiply opportunities in high school.

The muscle for those lawsuits came from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal law that protects people in federally funded programs and services from discrimination based on disability. It passed one year after Title IX and contained language that is practically identical to the landmark gender-equity legislation. But disability law experts say its effectiveness hasn’t matched its famous cousin because it lacked the same precedent-setting legal challenges and policy clarifications that helped define compliance with Title IX.

When Illini sophomore Kendra Zeman (left) fights off physical double teams or Mustangs senior Derek Klinkner tumbles to the floor (right) and finishes games with blistered hands, spectators are often shocked.

But Paralympian Tatyana McFadden showed in 2006 that the law could be a powerful ally. She sued Maryland’s Howard County Public Schools that year in a U.S. district court for denying her the opportunity to compete as a full member of Atholton High School’s track team, contending the district violated her rights under the Rehab Act.

McFadden was born in Russia with spina bifida and spent part of her childhood in an orphanage before Debbie McFadden, the commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Health Department, visited the orphanage and decided to adopt her. Once in Maryland, Tatyana found opportunities to develop her athletics abilities through the Bennett Blazers organization, which develops community-based programming for disabled athletes in Baltimore. She qualified for the Paralympics at age 15, captured silver and bronze medals in racing events and returned home as a rising international star − only to be denied an opportunity to compete as an official member of her high school team.

So Debbie, who assisted with the development of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, contacted the Maryland Disability Law Center with the intent to sue for equal access to school athletics for people with disabilities. Lauren Young, the center’s director of litigation, thought the case was so straightforward that she was surprised the dispute couldn’t be settled over the phone.

“I thought, ‘Well this is just silly,’ ” Young said. She had used the Rehabilitation Act previously to argue for housing, transportation and voting rights cases. Precedents existed, she said, establishing that discrimination in athletics was tantamount to discrimination in educational programming. “It just seemed like a no-brainer to me.”

A U.S. district judge agreed in 2006, citing the Rehab Act in his ruling and finding the school district in violation of federal law. Two years later, Maryland passed the Fitness and Athletic Equity Act for Students with Disabilities, considered a landmark piece of state legislation. The law specifies, in detail, requirements for the state’s schools to provide equal opportunities for students with disabilities to participate in physical education and athletics programs. Schools also must produce detailed compliance reports to the Maryland Department of Education.

SUBCOMMITTEE EXPLORING ADAPTED SPORTS' POTENTIAL

Adapted sports for individuals with physical disabilities are not yet an official part of NCAA competitions, but a committee began exploring the issue and its possible future last summer.

The NCAA Student-Athletes with Disabilities Subcommittee formed from members of the Minority Opportunities in Athletics Committee and the Committee on Women’s Athletics in order to explore how the NCAA is currently addressing the needs of student-athletes with physical and education-impacting disabilities, and the possibilities for expanding intercollegiate athletics opportunities for those individuals in the future.

The group is the second committee the NCAA has formed to explore the topic, but the first since the short-lived Special Committee on Athletic Opportunities for Handicapped Students dissolved in 1982.

Committee chair Carmen Leeds, senior associate athletic director for internal operations at Emporia State, said the group is in its infancy and is currently in its investigation phase to learn about adapted sports.

“I think right now it is just for us to gain the knowledge that we can use to educate the membership,” Leeds said, “because there are going to be more questions.”

Tatyana’s victory helped reinforce the rights of disabled athletes under the Rehab Act. Florida, New Jersey and Ohio have since established athletics programs for students with disabilities, and two lawsuits last year that bore similarities to Tatyana’s case forced states to expand existing opportunities.

In May, the Minnesota State High School League − which began offering adaptive sports competitions in bowling, soccer, floor hockey and softball in 1993 − settled a case brought by high school wheelchair racer Rose Hollermann, agreeing to double the number of track and field competitions for wheelchair athletes (to six) and for the first time allowing them to score points on mixed teams with their able-bodied teammates.

Two months later, the U.S. Department of Justice weighed in on an Illinois case with a statement of interest that Scot Hollonbeck, a former wheelchair basketball player and racer who is now a disabled-athletes rights activist, describes as a “game changer.” The Illinois attorney general’s office and an advocacy group, Equip for Equality, filed the suit on behalf of disabled swimmer and track athlete Mary Kate Callahan, alleging the Illinois High School Association discriminated against disabled athletes by requiring them to meet the same state qualifying times as their able-bodied peers.

When the IHSA moved to have the case dismissed last summer, the Justice Department wrote a letter to the court stating its “strong interest” in seeing the case resolved and outlining that its interpretation of both the Rehab Act and specific titles of the ADA applied to the governing body. The Justice Department strongly urged the court not to dismiss the case.

The IHSA reached a settlement with Callahan in September, agreeing to set up four swimming events for athletes with disabilities. The Justice Department’s statement now stands as a message to other governing bodies for how the federal government can be expected to interpret the Rehab Act in similar cases.

But those events were only warning shots for what disability sports advocates believe is the landmark development.

On the heels of McFadden’s lawsuit, the Government Accountability Office examined the opportunities available to public school students with disabilities. It found that 41 percent of students with a broad range of disabilities in grades one through seven – including cognitive, emotional, visual, hearing and orthopedic – participated on a sports team. But that number dropped to 33 percent during their high school years.

It also determined that the Department of Education provided schools with little information or guidance to help them understand their responsibilities for providing disabled students with opportunities to participate in physical education and extracurricular athletics activities. At the time, the Rehab Act left room for interpretation about what point schools had to create separate programs for students with disabilities – such as a wheelchair basketball team – versus making accommodations that allowed them to compete in a track or swimming event.

When its report was released in June 2010, the GAO recommended that the Department of Education provide additional clarification of schools’ responsibilities under the Rehab Act and define the steps needed to comply with federal law. That guideline clarification, released by the Office of Civil Rights on Jan. 25, laid out specific requirements for schools at the elementary through postsecondary levels to comply with the law. It required schools to explore ways to adjust policies and rules to make reasonable accommodations to help students with disabilities to compete in existing programs. The guidelines also stated that schools should create separate programs – such as wheelchair basketball – for situations where those accommodations weren’t enough.

As those guidelines create new opportunities for America’s youth, the number of athletes seeking to continue their athletics career in college is expected to grow with them.

 

TRICKLING UP TO THE NCAA

Gaeng can testify to the opportunity those legal victories opened.

She was among the first beneficiaries of the Fitness and Athletic Equity Act as a high school student in Maryland. While her greatest success came in basketball − she helped the Bennett Blazers reach the championship game of the NWBA Junior Division as a senior − the law provided new opportunities to compete in wheelchair track and tennis.

Those athletics experiences helped her earn a basketball scholarship at Illinois, where she is now working on a business degree − the same career path two of her brothers and sisters already followed.

“It helped me put my little stone in the wall of success of my family,” Gaeng said. “Now that I look back on it, it was very, very big.”

HEADWAY ON THE TRACK

If the NCAA opens new opportunities for student-athletes with disabilities at its championships, track and field may be the sport that grows the quickest and with the fewest complications.

The latest U.S. Census Bureau figures estimate that 2.3 percent of kids ages 5 to 17 have physical disabilities that may require accommodations to compete in athletics. It’s a small percentage, but advocates say that population of 1.3 million kids is enough to populate a competitive national wheelchair basketball program at the college level. But an important step to developing a dedicated wheelchair sport, they said, is to focus on the expansion and improvement of programming at the youth and high school levels to increase participation and quality of coaching. That process might develop over a decade or longer.

By comparison, track and field is expanding at the high school levels faster than any other sport and is positioned to add athletes with disabilities immediately simply because it wouldn’t require a full roster for a dedicated team. Instead, it could integrate athletes into existing programs simply by adding wheelchair racing and field events to traditional meet lineups.

Ted Fay, a professor at SUNY Cortland and an expert on disability athletics issues, believes that model could effectively integrate athletes with disabilities because of the lower cost and complication of adding single events. Fay also believes it would offer incentives for teams to recruit athletes for those events. For example, top-ranked teams could be instantly motivated to recruit athletes with disabilities to avoid forfeiting points in the national championship.

“You have an example there where it incentivizes recruitment, and it incentivizes awareness,” Fay said. “You’re flipping it, and you’re creating a resource argument as an incentive.”

The U.S. talent pool for high school track and field is already competitive at the international level, too. Six high school All-Americans competed in last summer’s London Paralympic Games, and all but one made the finals in their event.

Athletes with disabilities are finding more opportunities in high school than ever before. Becky Oakes, director of sports for the National Federation of State High School Associations, estimated that a dozen states now offer athletics programming adapted for disabled students. Some have already found ways to create opportunities for those athletes to compete alongside their able-bodied peers, such as allowing a visually impaired cross country athlete to use a guide runner and tether, or by lining up a wheelchair racer in a track meet alongside other runners.

But opportunity is rare once those athletes leave high school: Only four of the 12 NWBA intercollegiate programs are women’s teams, and only three schools offer track programs. While high school programming is expanding, opportunities in college have remained stagnant for three decades. It makes advocates and legal experts question how long it will take for a critical mass of teenage athletes to come knocking at the doors of America’s colleges and universities and demand similar opportunities.

Hollonbeck, who has advised and participated in several lawsuits pursuing the rights of disabled athletes, said that process is already under way. In 2010, he helped an incoming freshman craft a letter to a major athletics department asking that administrators there consider starting a sports program for disabled students. The response: Since the NCAA doesn’t sponsor adapted sports, the request didn’t fall under the university’s guidelines. The student was then referred to the school’s department of recreational sports. Hollonbeck said it was a typical response, passing responsibility off to other departments and organizations. But he believes that stance would crumble in court.

Young also believes colleges and universities are legally vulnerable for the same reasons she used to successfully argue McFadden’s case. But she and other disabled athlete advocates hope that higher education institutions will take steps before the issue arrives at their doorstep and avoid the difficulties that legally forced evolution can bring.

Young said the abrupt changes prompted by McFadden’s case exposed Maryland schools’ lack of background, policy work and experience with disabled athletes. Officials were unprepared to handle even simple issues they never previously had to consider, such as transportation needs, rule adjustments, scoring and inter-regional competition procedures.

Similar questions may pose the greatest hurdles to expanding the sports at the college level.

The latest U.S. Census Bureau figures estimate that only 2.3 percent of kids age 5 to 17 have the types of physical disabilities that can require accommodations to compete in athletics – far less than the population power driving Title IX. So how much opportunity would be reasonably expected from a school to be considered compliant? Would athletic trainers need specific education to work with disabled athletes? What accommodations would a school’s support staff need to consider to meet those students’ unique needs? How would it impact compliance with Title IX, and how could schools allocate resources to include disabled athletes without tripping on the ever-present concerns of depleting other sports?

If athletics departments adopted those programs, college administrators said sports such as wheelchair basketball and track would first need to be restructured to comply with current regulations. For example, the NWBA permits wheelchair basketball players to compete for five seasons, one more than the NCAA allows. Rules governing eligibility, recruiting and practice would also have to be established.

Thoughtful, interested parties – rather than forced hands – best resolve those issues, advocates say. And last summer the NCAA began exploring those questions with a new subcommittee composed of members of the Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee and the Committee on Women’s Athletics (see sidebar).

The Illinois women’s wheelchair basketball team loads up the bus on game day.

“The NCAA places tremendous value on all dimensions of diversity and strives to foster an inclusive climate within the intercollegiate athletics community,” NCAA Chief Inclusion Officer Bernard Franklin said. “Exploring new opportunities and serving the best interests of student-athletes with disabilities will continue to be a vital part of our focus moving forward.”

It may be a decade or more before those issues reach an urgent stage. But Illinois men’s wheelchair basketball coach Mike Frogley glows when he ponders the potential. For nearly 25 years he’s played and coached the game in a mainstream-awareness vacuum, yet he consistently hears spectators marvel over deep jump shots and daring drives through the lane they never considered possible from a wheelchair. If the game can already alter those perceptions, he asks, what could it accomplish as an official varsity sport?

“Wow,” Frogley said, “the power that would have in reshaping the views of all society would be amazing.”

That’s why Lew Shaver has held a dream since the 1970s. From his post near the edge of the world, the idea seemed as far-reaching as landing a man on Jupiter, but the Southwest Minnesota State coach never let it go.

He imagines the Final Four, with all its fanfare. And alongside that year’s top basketball programs, competing on the same court on the same weekend, Shaver envisions men’s and women’s wheelchair teams playing for their own NCAA crowns, revealing to the world their skill and determination, showcasing what they can accomplish.

“That’s what I would love to see for these kids,” Shaver said, his voice filling with awe. “Wouldn’t that be absolutely beautiful?”

 

This feature originally appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of NCAA Champion Magazine.