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Got Game

Got Game
Disabled student-athletes are ready to compete and say they can do without public admiration.

Mary Allison Milford’s life sounds like that of a typical college athlete. At least, it does on the surface. Three-hour workouts five days a week, long bus rides to weekend games in other states and keeping up with her studies are all part of life for the University of Alabama student.

But unlike many of the Crimson Tide’s able-bodied athletes, it’s up to Milford and her wheelchair basketball teammates to raise some of the money for tournament fees and travel costs. Why? Because the shoestring budget of the university’s disabled sports program doesn’t cover everything. In collegiate disabled sports, that problem is more common than not.

Around the country, disabled sports are often treated like second-class siblings to their able-bodied counterparts, largely because the latter bring in prestigious tournaments and bowl games, lucrative TV contracts and national exposure for top athletes and coaches. Furthermore, most college coaches have little or no experience handling entire teams of people with disabilities, and they are intimidated at the prospect, disability advocates say. Some are so ill-informed, for instance, that they fear that wheelchairs will ruin basketball courts or that students with impairments are too fragile for sports. And because disabled people are so sparsely distributed in the general population, it is more difficult for them to organize and demand inclusion.

Consequently, disabled sports programs like Alabama’s are few and far between. Only 11 universities offer disabled sports on a varsity level, with wheelchair basketball among the most common. Funding is tenuous, forcing the athletes to raise money themselves. They generally don’t have dedicated game and practice facilities, but instead must share space with campus recreational and intramural teams, meaning older, lower-quality facilities compared to the high-dollar, state-of-the-art arenas and gyms that able-bodied varsity athletes enjoy.

Teams for the disabled also typically don’t have access to the fancy dining halls, locker rooms and other campus amenities available to able-bodied athletes. Scholarships exist, but in smaller numbers and amounts than those for the able-bodied. None of the disabled sports programs are even governed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. A spokeswoman says the NCAA has no policy on disabled sports because universities have not requested one.
The lack of opportunity, not to mention lack of respect, frustrates Milford, her peers and their advocates. 

“Disabled sports are often viewed by the able-bodied public as cultural get-togethers,” says Eli A. Wolff, project director of the Disability in Sport program at Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society. “They aren’t viewed as real sport activity.”

The term “disability” implies a broad range of conditions, making it impossible to determine how many college students have one. Under privacy laws, students aren’t obligated to disclose a disability to their schools, making identification that much more difficult. After all, there are physical and mental impairments of varying degrees, not to mention learning disabilities and chronic conditions like diabetes. There are also students who have survived cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. However, plenty of athletes with disabilities have excelled on able-bodied teams and in individual sporting events, say Wolff and others.

Some students have attracted national headlines, too. Neil Parry resumed his football career with a prosthetic leg in 2003 at San José State University, three years after an injury led to an amputation. Meanwhile, The Ohio State University’s men’s golf team, which included deaf player Kevin Hall, won the Big Ten conference championship in 2004. At the University of Georgia, congenital amputee Kyle Maynard continues to build upon his high school success in wrestling — even though he has no limbs.

However, athletes with disabilities often play down public admiration. Milford, who has used a wheelchair since age 3 and has competed in basketball and swimming most of her life, cringes a little whenever someone uses the terms “inspiring” or “amazing” to describe her or her teammates.

“We’re athletes who happen to use wheelchairs,” says Milford, a guard who was a member of the U.S. national team that placed second at last year’s Gold Cup Wheelchair Basketball World Championship in Amsterdam.
Whether a disabled student plays on a team of able-bodied peers or on a team strictly made up of others with disabilities is determined on a case-by-case basis.

Organized disabled sports are divided into a few broad groups, such as those for the deaf, those for people with physical disabilities and those for people with intellectual disabilities. The origins of these sports vary. For instance, sports for the physically disabled planted their strongest roots after World War II, when many injured servicemen and civilians found themselves in rehabilitation programs. While recovering, they got involved in wheelchair sports for recreation. That evolved into competition, and the movement eventually birthed the Paralympics.

Disabled sports also are divided among different governing associations. Wheelchair basketball, for instance, is run by the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. Eligible players must have a permanent disability that prevents play on a stand-up team. Experts say sports help people with disabilities improve their problem-solving skills and confidence, which in turn helps them better meet their potential in the work force. Unfortunately, participation in youth sports often requires paying the enrollment costs of private or community sports programs outside of public schools. For those with physical disabilities, expenses can also include the cost of modern, lightweight wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs or other devices. Like colleges, the K-12 system has largely ignored disabled sports. “Disability is the forgotten diversity,” says Dr. Brent Hardin, Alabama’s disability sports director.

The University of Illinois is considered a pioneer in collegiate disabled sports, which it has offered since the late 1940s. Currently, it features men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball as well as road racing and handcycling. Many of its athletes — recruited from as far away as Australia — compete in the Paralympics. Yet disabled sports aren’t even housed within the university’s athletic department, but under its Disability Resources and Educational Services division. The setup is common among the other 10 universities that offer varsity disabled sports. Without foundation grants, Illinois would offer far fewer scholarships to disabled athletes, significant because so many of them pay out-of-state tuition. The university also faces a Catch-22 in its own fund raising. The wheelchair basketball teams can’t aggressively market and promote exhibitions and games because of the limited seating available in the gym they share with the recreational teams.

“For someone who’s been in business for the better part of 60 years, we still have a long way to go,” says Dr. Brad Hedrick, director of the DRES division.

Those obstacles can translate into an uphill climb for new programs. Women’s wheelchair basketball came to Alabama in 2003, when Hardin arrived as an assistant professor in kinesiology. During interviews for the faculty job, he had voiced the desire to start a team. Fortunately, Alabama President Robert E. Witt had grown familiar with wheelchair basketball when he was president of the University of Texas at Arlington, home of the Movin’ Mavs.

To come up with enough players that first year, Hardin tapped students as well as local residents. His graduate-student wife, Margaret Stran, was a player-coach. They raised funds by doing menial chores at Tuscaloosa businesses like bagging groceries and washing cars. The financial situation kept the team from traveling to face the nation’s only other varsity women’s teams, at Illinois and the University of Arizona. Instead, the Crimson Tide played men’s teams in closer proximity.

Fast forward. An Alabama men’s wheelchair team was introduced this past academic year. The university now allocates annual funds for both teams, which have grown so popular that now only students fill the rosters. Hardin has even set up primary and secondary squads and has created peripheral jobs like equipment manager so he won’t have to turn students away.

Team members still need to raise money, though, and this year, each athlete was responsible for collecting $500. Donors could either make tax-deductible contributions or purchase advertising on the players’ warm-up jerseys. Milford, a junior majoring in public relations, collected her quota in $100 increments, doing her best to remain patient while trooping through town soliciting business owners. “They didn’t understand why we were raising money,” she recalls. “They didn’t understand how we’re separate from the able-bodied teams.”

The separation is something Wolff is striving to change. He favors
merging the Paralympics with the Olympics, for instance, and compares the current setup with the American education system pre-Brown v. Board of Education. “Separate but equal is unequal,” he says. “Excluding athletes with disabilities from the Olympics doesn’t make sense. It’s like taking all the women’s events out of the Olympics and holding them separately, a few weeks after the Olympics.”

Yet observers say that change, if it occurs, is likely to be as slow as the growth of disabled sports programs at U.S. universities. “It would be wonderful,” Hardin says, “if more schools would start teams, but it may not happen in my lifetime unless there’s legislation calling for it or the schools can clearly make money off the teams.”
By Lydia Lum

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