It’s been nearly 20 years since I first rolled onto a stage with butterfly wings on the back of my wheelchair and tried my best to dance like no one was watching, but I still remember just how exhilarated I felt. Adaptive recreation is a a great way to encourage the integration and inclusion of people with and without disabilities and promote equality in communities. I participated in an adaptive ballet class from age 12 to 14 and loved every minute of it. The class gave me the opportunity to get out of my wheelchair, have fun, and work with real dancers in recitals of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Nutcracker.”
Despite only being in wheelchair ballet for two years, I can honestly say my childhood would not have been what it was had I not been a part of the class. My time in the class was short-lived, not by choice, but because too many students’ parents became stage-obsessed and complained about their children not being the star of our recitals. Just before rehearsals for what would have been my third recital were set to begin, I received a call from the owner of the ballet studio, our head instructor, saying she was no longer offering classes for people with disabilities and we could not join another class because some of our parents caused her too much stress.
Even at age 14, the fact that integrating people with disabilities into a standard ballet class had been discouraged struck me as odd. My mother and I looked for other extracurricular activities for me to take part in, but could not find something that was adaptive and held my interest. The summer between my junior and senior year of high school, I heard about Springhill Camps which surprisingly offered every summer camp activity from horseback riding to zip lining to children and teens with and without disabilities. I spent the next two summers living it up in the outdoors trying everything from kayaking to a high ropes obstacle course. Admittedly, although I fancied myself invincible and capable of doing anything as a teenager, I was sometimes as surprised as my fellow able-bodied campers that I could successfully complete so many camp activities.
Looking back, for me, the experience highlights both the purpose and importance of integration and inclusion of people with disabilities. Without those summer camp experiences, I may have never realized my true capabilities. Everyone, regardless of their ability level, should have the opportunity to get to know themselves and others through team sports and activities.
I joined an adaptive recreation club in college. I enjoyed getting to know other people with disabilities and playing wheelchair basketball and wheelchair football, but I was once again struck by the lack of integration. Until I invited some of my able-bodied friends to participate, the only able-bodied people involved were those paid to assist people with disabilities. I attended Wright State University in Fairborn, Ohio, which is known for its support programs for people with disabilities. It surprised me that adaptive sports were not better advertised to all students at a university known for supporting those with disabilities. The lack of able-bodied student participation in adaptive recreation was a wake-up call for me. It made me realized just how much the integration of people with and without disabilities still needs to be encouraged in society.
In August 2017, a huge victory in the fight for integration was achieved when a loving father created the world’s first ultra-accessible water park. Morgan’s Inspiration Island in San Antonio, Texas, was named for the daughter of its creator and is known for a culture of inclusion. Its amenities include waterproof wheelchairs and riverboats that rise to the level of those with disabilities so they can board.
One can only hope Morgan’s Inspiration Island is a sign of where efforts to further integrate and include people with disabilities in society are headed. But if my life experiences, as limited as they are in this area, show anything, it is that we have a long way to go before integration becomes commonplace in society. As is true regarding any advocacy effort, we will not achieve this goal unless we fight for it and become the change we want to see in society.
I hope this article serves as a push to others who read it to encourage integration and inclusion in their communities. Get creative. Bring a few people with disabilities and some spare wheelchairs to your local basketball team’s next practice, organize a trip to Morgan’s Inspiration Island for your local boy or girl scout troop, or start a adaptive recreation club in your town and encourage any and all to join. Whatever you choose to do to help integrate your community, make sure it is as fun and inclusive as possible.