Participation in athletic activities is beneficial for almost everyone; fortunately, they are becoming more inclusive to those with disabilities. Even if you require the use of a wheelchair for mobility, there’s no reason why you can’t become an athlete, too!
While most people are familiar with manual or electric wheelchairs, sports wheelchairs, which some refer to as "wheelchairs with attitude," are much better suited for the rigors of competition than traditional chairs. If you want to get involved in wheelchair sports, it’s important – just as it is for any athlete – to have the right equipment. Doing so will ensure the wheelchair you have is made specifically for your sport. It will not only give you a competitive edge, but guarantee the chair’s strength, stability and safety.
Sports wheelchairs are not typically made for everyday use, although some people do use them as their sole chair. They are highly specialized equipment built for exclusive use in a particular sport. Depending upon the activity, the wheelchair might be geared for speed, maneuverability or strength. Sports chairs are designed around feedback from wheelchair athletes, who use the equipment themselves and offer insight into what attributes they need for maximum performance in their sport.
Sports wheelchairs are streamlined in design and must be rigid for strength and stability. They are adjustable, but since they do not fold up, they can be difficult to transport. Their lightweight properties make them responsive and easier to propel, which also helps athletes avoid wrist and shoulder injuries. Sports wheelchairs are made with a unique camber and a pronounced wheel angle that inhibits tipping and falling – a characteristic that is especially beneficial during fast, sharp turns. The two larger rear wheels and smaller lead wheels are configured for both aerodynamic effect and propulsion. They are also designed for strength so they can safely withstand an impact, while keeping the rider as safe as possible in the seat. Rider safety is increased with the use of body straps that are secured tightly to eliminate any movement or bounce that would detract from the efficiency of the forward motion of the wheelchair. Many sports wheelchairs resemble mountain bikes more than wheelchairs.
Patented technology and lightweight materials, such as carbon fiber and
titanium, make this equipment fast and maneuverable. Sports wheelchairs
usually weigh about 1/3 of what a conventional chair would weigh – some
even as little as 15 pounds. However, this technology doesn’t come cheap.
Cost ranges from about $2,800 to $11,000, although basic models that are
less specialized can be purchased for less than $1,000. They are not usually
covered by insurance. You could consider buying a used sports wheelchair
to save money, but it might be difficult to find one that suits your needs,
since most are customized to fit the needs of the prior owner. Yet they
can still be a great alternative. Participating in wheelchair sports can
be costly, so many athletes gain corporate or individual sponsorship to
help cover expenses, which also benefits the sponsors as they gain economical
advertising and publicity.
The first major race to include a wheelchair division was the 1975 Boston Marathon. Finish times have decreased dramatically since then because of vast improvements in technology and wheelchair design.
Today, some of the most popular wheelchair sports include: basketball,
dance sport, fencing, rugby, tennis, curling and skiing. An increase in
interest and participation in wheelchair sports, as well as a greater availability
of high-tech materials, has caused the sport to grow significantly since
Wheelchair sports originated with the Stoke-Mandeville Games in England in 1948, which served as the forerunner to the modern Paralympics movement. Paralympics is supported by the efforts of more than 150 national Paralympics organizations. It has created a structured wheelchair sports environment that continues to grow with each competition. Track and field is one of the best-known events in the Paralympics, where athletes compete in a variety of races, ranging from the 100 meter track event to the 26.2 mile marathon.
There are many organizations and teams that create, promote and organize opportunities in which wheelchair athletes can participate. Wheelchair Sports, formally known as the National Wheelchair Athletic Association, is a Member Organization of the United States Olympic Committee. About 30% of their membership is comprised of junior athletes, ages 5 to 18. Disabled Sports USA is one of a number of other organizations that promote wheelchair sports and events for disabled athletes.
The Paralympics are the world’s premier sporting event for athletes with disabilities. There are 20 sports sub-divided into 6 disability categories. At the next games in Beijing, China in 2008 some 145 countries will field around 4,000 disabled sportspeople.
The sports that are exclusively the province of wheelchair users are
Wheelchairs are also one of the 6 disability categories for all of the Paralympic sports.
In the United States, there are now well-established sports programs for wheelchair users. Among these are
- the basketball league;
- marathon racing;
- rugby championships;
- table tennis events;
- tennis competitions;
- track and field meetings; and
- water skiing.
The related organizations include
- the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs (AAASP), http://www.adaptedsports.org/index.html; and
- Wheelchair Sports USA, http://www.wsusa.org/.
- National Veterans Wheelchair Games
- Wheelchair Baskeyball Camp 2010 - University of Wisconsin
Other international sports meetings
Apart from the Paralympics, a notable gathering is the Annual International Stoke Mandeville Games jointly run by the International Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Sports Federation (ISMWSF) and the International Sports Organization for the Disabled (ISOD).
The US National Park Service has a webpage describing its trails that are accessible for wheelchairs. They also list parks that have accessible campgrounds. The California State Park system has a list of some beaches that are configured for wheelchair access.
There are many benefits for anyone who engages in sports, especially for
people in wheelchairs. Depending on their disability, many wheelchair users
can do strength training with weights. Exercise will not only strengthen
the body and improve agility – it will also boost self-confidence. Many
wheelchair athletes develop a great sense of camaraderie with other team
members and individual participants. To find out more about sports wheelchairs
and how you can use them, find an event near you. There you can speak to
other wheelchair athletes, review sports wheelchairs in person and see which
athletic event is right for you.