Sir Ludwig Guttmann probably had no idea he was on to something that would
be so huge.
The year was 1944 and the war in Europe was raging. Thousands of disabled
veterans appeared in hospitals throughout the world. Guttmann, a doctor at
the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England, decided on a unique course for their
Bowling. Camping. Snow skiing. Billiards. Equestrian events. Sledge hockey.
Once, a disabled person could never have imagined taking part in these sports.
But the limitations on what can be done in a wheelchair have been eaten away
by technology and innovation.
The National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) was born in 1945.
That makes basketball the first organized wheelchair sport. A decade later,
Wheelchair Sports USA (WSUSA) began to govern wheelchair athletics.
Community-based wheelchair basketball teams also were formed in various
cities throughout the United States, many with the support of what would become
the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA).
The PVA now sponsors major competitive events in the U.S., including the
National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament, the U.S. Open Wheelchair Tennis
Championships and the U.S. Quad Rugby National Championship.
WSUSA has developed an athlete classification system, similar to the weight
classifications used to group non-disabled athletes. This system is used in
sports such as wrestling and boxing to accommodate the varying levels of abilities
of the athletes.
During events like the Paralympics, which are held immediately after the
Olympics, athletes are classified according to functional ability and compete
against others with similar disabilities.
Wheelchair athletes can use any conventional surface to play their sports.
Most of the games follow the rules of the able-bodied versions. But athletes
and organizations sometimes make concessions.
In fencing, for instance, the chairs are attached together by a rod and
remain stationary throughout the match. The opponent with the shortest reach
determines the distance between the chairs.
Most cities have local wheelchair associations and also offer some rentals
of low-floored vans equipped with ramps and lifts for people without their
Over 70 countries are members of the International Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair
Sports Federation (ISMWSF), the world governing body for wheelchair sports.
Extreme wheelchair sports, or adventure sports, are increasingly popular.
Rock climbing, long-distance skiing and auto sports are all possible with
adaptive equipment, such as hand controls for breaking, acceleration and steering.
Patty Shepherd is the executive director of Wheelchair Sports USA. She
has ideas about programs for the future.
"For programs, we look to add pool, ice-dancing, and ice-sledge, which
is similar to speed skating," she says.
"Right now, we have approximately 5,000 athletes who compete in sports,
but there are about 20 million disabled Americans. We want to go to schools,
parks and recreation centers and get them involved."
The tremendous interest in sports from the wheelchair community has led
to some unique opportunities to unleash an entrepreneurial spirit.
Peter Rieke is paralyzed from the waist down. He designs and builds state-of-the-art
specialty machines. In the seat of his arm-powered Snow Pod, he ascended Washington
state's Mount Rainier.
"These machines get you to where you've never been able to go before,"
he says. But although the vehicles Rieke designs are useful and fun, they
are too expensive for most budgets.
The cost of an average wheelchair adapted or designed for sport is around
$1,500. High-performance chairs for track racing are super-light and cost
There are many used equipment dealers, however, where prices are significantly
lower. In fact, for sports like basketball and tennis, wheelchairs do not
require any special adaptations.
Shepherd says that that is one of the reasons basketball is the most popular
"It's pretty much a sport that anyone can do," Shepherd says. "We
must have about 170 men's teams alone."
Shepherd advises people new to any wheelchair sport to find a team or facility
near where they live. "Hook up with a team," she says. "Go out and watch.
Go out and get involved."
Shepherd says that kids are sometimes under the impression that they are
the only ones with a disability. Getting out into the community can shatter
To help disabled kids get on to the court or into the pool, some organizations
currently offer sports and recreation programs.
The National Foundation of Wheelchair Tennis holds a wheelchair sport camp
each year, providing children ages seven to 18 with entry-level instruction
in several sports.
The Wheelchair Sports USA junior program organizes competition for youths
up to age 18 on the local, regional and national level. And the NWBA has established
a youth division to coordinate competition on a national level.
For the more experienced athletes, there are high-impact sports. Quad rugby
follows in the tradition of the original contact sport. But athletes play
on an indoor surface the size of a volleyball court.
Don Lane works with a wheelchair sports association. He says rugby is the
fastest-growing international wheelchair sport. He says American teams have
come to dominate the sport since the game was introduced into the U.S. in
"The U.S. is the world's power," Lane says. "The sport has flown across
the States quickly."
Lane cites the aggressiveness, speed and flow of the game as factors that
make it attractive to wheelchair athletes.
"It most closely resembles the sports people come from," he says.
"Wheelchair rugby has a lot of hitting, a lot of contact. People get bounced
out of their chairs. It's exciting to watch as well. The games don't
last for a long time, but while it's going on, it's outstanding
World T.E.A.M. Sports
101-2108 South Blvd.
Sports n' Spokes
Articles and info relevant to the disabled community
Lots of links to organizations for the disabled
Paralyzed Veterans of America
A full-service site with tons of links to sporting programs