Joe Clark: Accessibility ¶ Design ¶ Writing

Their own two feet:
Wheelchair sports have a credibility problem as it is,
and now able-bodied people want to play, too

Why would a person with two functioning legs want to play wheelchair sports?

The concept hadn’t even occurred to me until a fateful day six years ago. While I was seated in a bus waiting for it to head off on its obscure Toronto route, I saw a teenager walk onboard and plunk a folded wheelchair onto the floor. “Is that a Quickie?” I asked, referring to the slick, hip brand of wheelchair, one that can run you a couple of grand. “Yup,” the lad replied. “So what are you doing with it?” I asked. “Well, my brother’s disabled, and I’m on his basketball team.” “Really?” I asked, surprised. “Yeah. There’s a couple of walkies on the team.” More surprise.

The inclusion (or integration, or reverse integration) of able-bodied athletes is a perennial topic in crip-sport circles –and that’s ironic considering how hard disabled athletes have had to work to earn respect as legit athletes. At essence, to contemplate the acceptance of able-bodied athletes in wheelchair sports is to call into question the very philosophy of wheelchair sport. Just how “inclusive” should wheelchair sports be?

While disability itself is common in the human condition, it takes so many forms that disabled-sport administrators long ago began to subdivide athletes into classes based on medical diagnosis of disability – or, increasingly, on level of ability or function. Divisions are not unknown in nondisabled sports (think of weight classes in boxing and wrestling), but in crip sports the various classes are both more entrenched and more numerous. While cerebral-palsy sports, disabled swimming, and other genres group athletes of similar disability or function together so that competition takes place among peers, it’s in wheelchair basketball and track that the friction between the division structure and walkies’ participation in those sports runs the hottest.

As an organized sport, wheelchair basketball is more than 35 years old. The game follows virtually the same rules as “stand-up” basketball – you can push your wheels no more than twice without dribbling, for example – but uses a lower net. Every athlete is assigned a point score based on (dis)ability; the more disabled you are, the lower your number. In international play for all-male teams, nondisabled players get the maximum score, usually 4 or 4.5. A coach has to keep the total point score of the players on the floor below a certain number, usually 14 or 14.5. (In the U.S., male and female basketballers are divvied up into only three classes, and the max point total is 12.) Like other division systems in disabled sport, the procedure is meant to encourage coaches to avoid holding back players with more severe disabilities.

But sheer numbers of players are a problem: You need at least ten players (more realistically, fifteen to twenty) to actually run a match between two teams. Excluding nondisabled players from consideration, this amounts to digging up at least ten people who are (a) disabled, (b) wheelchair users, (c) athletes, (d) interested in the game in the first place, and (e) close enough to tourney and practice sites to actually participate.

International wheelchair basketball was opened up to athletes with “minor” disabilities like single-leg amputation or mild cerebral palsy in 1982, but still it’s hard to muster enough bodies for a team in underpopulated areas. “I have coached three community teams over the years,” says Frank Brasile of the University of Nebraska, “and always had problems having enough players for a competitive practice.” For women’s basketball teams, the scarcity of players is so acute that maximum player point totals in meets outside the U.S. can range all the way to 19.5. Without nondisabled players, some teams, male and female, would fold altogether.

But David Kiley, commissioner of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association in Pomona, California, and a player of the game for over 20 years, says, “It was very clear in our constitution and bylaws that you have to have a significant permanent disability [to play]. Most of the feedback that we have gotten in this country is that it’s a game for the disabled. The part that I like, though, is that wheelchair basketball could be attractive enough for anyone, because wheelchair basketball is that attractive. [But if] you look at the opportunities for crossing over into able-bodied sport, there’s not that much opportunity..... Our membership looks at it and says, ‘This is our sport. This is the one thing that we have.’ ”

True enough, the link between disabled and nondisabled sports isn’t a two-way street – walkies can do wheelchair sports, but the converse is rarely true, and you don’t exactly see wheelie jocks playing alongside Michael Jordan. This restriction of options prompts disabled-sport administrators to defend their events with a certain pride and territoriality.

“Generally speaking, we don’t think that that’s the right direction to go,” says Kirk Bauer, executive director of Disabled Sports USA, a multi-sport umbrella group. “I’m not an advocate for it,” declares Stan Labanowich, Kiley’s predecessor. “I’ve always thought that, if people who are disabled could somehow miraculously become able-bodied through medical research and the promise of regeneration of the spinal cord, [then] I don’t think they’d want to play wheelchair spots anymore. I think the extension of that concept is, ‘Why should able-bodied people want to play disabled sport?’ ”

Robert Steadward, president of the International Paralympic Committee (the disabled-sport equivalent of Juan Antonio Samaranch), agrees, saying “a lot of the developing athletes say [integration] is not fair.... If we move too quickly by integrating able-bodied individuals into our sport, whether they be sighted people in blind events or nondisabled people in wheelchair events or what have you, I think that would adversely affect our move toward increasing the status of our sport.”

Indeed, any discussion of the future of disabled sport inevitably comes around to public – and official – acceptance. Progress is being made: At Barcelona and Lillehammer, both the Olympic and the Paralympic Games were organized under one large tent (admittedly, with separate nabobs running the two sides), and Steadward claims Samaranch has agreed the same pooling of resources should happen in Sydney. (Atlanta is doing it the old way, with separate Olympic and Paralympic committees – “in typical American style,” Steadward notes.) Last summer’s Commonwealth Games in Victoria, B.C. integrated disabled swimmers, lawn-bowlers, and track athletes. Disabled and nondisabled jocks in certain sports are increasingly coming under the aegis of the Olympic-level governing bodies of those sports, a long-overdue recognition that, for example, swimming is swimming is swimming no matter how many functioning limbs you may have.

That ideal – considering sport and athlete first, disability and equipment second – has no more an outspoken proponent than Jeff Adams, 24, a Canadian track star with a passion as fiery as his bright-red hair. Though he refused to return calls for this article, Adams was quoted in the Toronto Star in 1993 as declaring, “It’s not a politically acceptable thing for me to say, but people don’t realize what the Olympics is. Less than half a percent of the world’s population ever gets to go to the Olympics. Why should you suddenly allow all kinds of people to get in just because they happen to compete in an event where most of the world is excluded?” (While exhibition events have been held at various Games, the Olympics have no set events for wheelchair athletes.)

In a CBC Radio interview last February, Adams went further, advocating “open competition in terms of allowing anybody in the world, regardless of whether they’re disabled or able-bodied, the opportunity to attempt to compete in [wheelchair sport]. If an event is segregated in terms of leaving people out across the world’s population, I don’t think it should be an Olympic competition.... They don’t subdivide any of the track races into, you know, short and tall, you know, mesomorph/endomorph. Whoever can run the fastest runs the fastest; whoever can throw the furthest throws the furthest. A lot of the other [disabled] sports really aren’t understanding what level wheelchair racing has come to.”

Sounds very noble. But, as Robert Steadward observes, “I don’t know if Jeff Adams [had] that same attitude when he was getting his butt kicked three or four years ago.” And it’s here that the difference between track and basketball is most apparent: You can put a walkie on a ball team and simply assign that person a high point value that literally handicaps that athlete, but in track, the only place you’d find nondisabled jocks would be the least-disabled divisions (like Adams’s). Opening up track events to walkies is, in effect, opening up a single division – rather at odds with Adams’s goal of seeing a wheelchair as merely an implement. That goal, presumably, would necessitate the wholesale elimination of the division system in track, and that, in turn, would nearly guarantee that Adams and his peers (walkies included) would cream all the other competitors, who by definition are working at a disadvantage the division system aims to equalize.

Walkies have not exactly been trading in their running shoes for wheelchairs, but a search of the literature shows exactly one nondisabled person who made a mark in wheelchair athletics: Kelly Gordon, 33, an employee of the Edmonton Police Service in Alberta. Gordon actually won the wheelchair division of the 1987 Vancouver Marathon, placed second in 1986, and placed third in 1985; ironically, before those victories Gordon never finished in the top ranks when he ran the marathon.

“I’m obviously, in general terms, a proponent of integration,” Gordon said in an interview, “but you have to use common sense. From what I gather, there is not a mob of able-bodied athletes banging down the doors for full inclusion [in wheelchair sports], in terms of track and road racing. The day that that happens – well, I don’t think you and I will be around when and if it happens.” But if actual wheelies were excluded from the sport to accommodate walkies, “well, that’s counterproductive to the entire effort. [But] I don’t think that’s what we’re looking at here.”

Besides, Gordon’s experience reveals the disadvantages walkies face in wheelchair sports: Functioning legs are heavy, and Gordon says it’s painful in the extreme to tuck your legs under you, as paralyzed wheelies do, for the duration of a race. “Although the jury is still out on this, I’ve always firmly believed that low paras [paraplegics with spinal-cord injuries down near the hips] have a distinct advantage – and certainly amps [amputees] – over able-bodied athletes, simply because of the fact that their legs weigh less, or they don’t have legs.”

Not surprisingly, Gordon has something to say about the acceptance of wheelchair sports qua sports: “You talk to me about the athleticism of luge events? Let’s talk about air-pistol shooting in the Summer Olympics. How do you justify that when [IOC nabobs] go to exclude people racing in wheelchairs in marathons? If that’s not a true athletic event, then I don’t know what is. And I’ve run them and wheeled them, so I probably know.”

Sidebar: One-up/one-down tennis

There does exist a sport in which disabled and nondisabled athletes compete side-by-side – literally. “One-up/one down” tennis is a form of mixed doubles with teams made up of one player in a chair and one not. Wheelchair tennis per se runs by virtually the same rules as the Sampras/Navratilova kind; you can, however, let the ball bounce twice before hitting it. As Vicki Turner of the National Foundation of Wheelchair Tennis puts it, “the wheelchair player obviously gets the second bounce, which can enable him, depending on his level of skill, to compete with an able-bodied player.” The one-up/one-down game, then, requires only a modest adjustment for either player – and it’s a hybrid event that stands as an object lesson in how to truly integrate a sport.

Admittedly, the one-up/one-down game was easy to add to the tennis repertoire because tennis isn’t a team sport and isn’t always a one-on-one sport, either, both of which raise tricky issues of player penalties and advantages. But while International Paralympic Committee president Robert Steadward worries that “inclusion” of able-bodied players in disabled sport in general means fewer slots for actual disabled people, he fully approves of one-up/one-down tennis: “You’re talking about a method of rehabilitation that does not remove the [advantage] of the person with a disability.... I really think that what tennis has done is great.”

Originally written circa 1996 (for the Village Voice) ¶ Updated here 2011.06.25

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