Out of place

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RyeAccess abruptly cancelled its wheelchair hockey event during disability awareness week. Its proposed sponsor, who the accessibility group refuses to name, did not agree with how the event was planned and marketed. Without this outside help, RyeAccess was left lacking expensive high-powered wheelchairs and the event was called off.

“We were trying to make it so that able-bodied people could experience what it’s like to be in a wheelchair and take it further than just rolling around campus,” said RyeAccess co-ordinator Elissa Uhlmann. “We wanted to make sure there was something for everyone.”

With Vancouver playing host to the 2010 Paralympics in the coming weeks, wheelchair sports have never been on a more public stage.

But when it comes to universities across Canada, there has yet to be a school that takes initiative to create a wheelchair athletics program.

Ivan Joseph, Ryerson’s director of athletics, said Sports and Recreation has not talked about offering wheelchair sports.

“From a varsity point of view in terms of competition, I don’t think we are there yet,” he said. “But we definitely need to be in the future.”

Even the University of Toronto, known for its variety of athletics programs, is only starting to contribute. Susan Lee is the accessibility co-ordinator for the faculty of physical education and health at the University of Toronto and said that creating a wheelchair sports program at U of T is still in “preliminary stages.”

“It would provide a broad spectrum of activities,” she said. “It’s certainly something we would be interested in doing in the future.”

But this is not the attitude everywhere. Across the border at the University of Illinois, it’s a much different story. The university offers a thriving wheelchair sports program, which includes basketball and track and field. The wheelchair basketball program started on Feb. 24, 1948 –– the first day a student with a disability came to the school.

Men’s basketball coach Mike Frogley, who is a high-level paraplegic, said that it’s important for a school to embrace the benefits of wheelchair athletics. “Any sports program is important because you learn a lot of things –– discipline, responsibility and work ethic,” he said. “It’s even more important for a person with a disability because there’s not always as many chances to get involved in extracurriculars.”

Frogley said established wheelchair athletic programs change the way the student population looks at disabled students on campus. “The first impression is often ‘Oh, look at that poor person.

“But when they see the (wheelchair basketball) players pulling up and hitting a three, tilting, falling and moving around in their chair, they don’t think about what they can’t do anymore –– they think about what they can do.”

Closer to home, creating a wheelchair sports team seems to be more difficult. Frogley, who hails from Ottawa, said that wheelchair sports – or college sports in general – are not as highly regarded in Canada.

“If you’re a student athlete at an American college, you’re a superstar,” he said. “In Canada, it’s not such a big thing.”

Frogley is still hopeful that wheelchair sports will make their way into more of Canada’s universities.

“As more programs work their way into more places, people will be able to see them as something different.

“They’ll be able to see that it’s much more than just the disability.”

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