EMU's Adaptive Sports Club promotes inclusive recreation for people with disabilities

The relatively new club offers specialized equipment, like soccer balls that contain bells so players with visual impairments can hear them, and organizers have big plans for the future.
Kara Oliver, student president of the Adaptive Sports Club at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), says recreation and sports have literally "changed the life" of her friends with physical disabilities. 

She saw one friend, a wounded veteran with an amputated leg, go from being unable to walk to becoming a powerlifter in the gym. Another friend with an amputated leg now plays hockey.

"Recreation is such a big part of people's lives," Oliver says. "People with a disability can do it. They just need adaptations or modifications."
Kara Oliver.
The club she leads at EMU is growing slowly, with a mission to make recreational programming more inclusive. The club is open to EMU staff and students, as well as any community member aged 16 and older. 

"Recreation is for everyone," says club faculty advisor Heather Silander, who is also an assistant professor of therapeutic recreation (TR) at EMU. "Everyone has the right to recreate in the way they choose. Part of what we're providing is a choice, an opportunity, a way for them to recreate. Some people don't even know that [playing adaptive sports] is an option."
Heather Silander.
Early days

Silander says the Adaptive Sports Club was conceived by occupational therapy (OT) and therapeutic recreation students in spring of 2020. A board made up of OT and TR students spent the summer of 2020 talking about what they wanted the club to be, and hosted their first event in summer 2021. That first program was a wheelchair tennis event held in collaboration with the Recreational Sports program at the University of Michigan.

The public was recently invited to an open house event to try some of the club's adaptive equipment (like soccer balls that contain bells so players with visual impairments can find them by sound) and sports (like seated volleyball). Some of the club's newly-acquired gear came courtesy of a Clemson University grant targeting veterans. Local disabled veterans were invited to a club soccer event in May that offered two tracks: one for individuals with vision impairments and one for those with neurological conditions like cerebral palsy or traumatic brain injury.
The Adaptive Sports Club's specialized equipment includes oversized soccer balls designed to be used from power wheelchairs, as well as balls that make sounds so players with visual impairments can better follow them.
Silander says EMU's Recreational Center and Intramural Sports (REC/IM) program has been welcoming of the club.

"They're very supportive, wanting us to be in the [Recreational Center] facility, and that's been a huge help," Silander says.

Donald Gillette, assistant director of facilities for REC/IM at EMU, says REC/IM has already supported recreational opportunities for people with disabilities, including hosting Special Olympics events. He says welcoming the Adaptive Sports Club was only natural, and in alignment with REC/IM's recent shift toward a more holistic wellness approach that goes beyond "running on the treadmill or playing basketball." 

Adaptive Sports Club organizers note that the club is still very new and building momentum. Oliver says COVID-19 was a "big barrier" to building the club, and Silander agrees, saying many people still weren't venturing out much in 2021. 

"With a disability, or if you're immune compromised, you've got another layer to deal with," Silander says. "But this year, we're trying to get the word out."

Despite the slow start, Silander says the club is quickly picking up momentum.

"This year, we've already done more than what we did within the first two years," she says. 
Kara Oliver and Heather Silander.
Future ambitions

Oliver says club representatives will do community outreach at events like EMU's Winter Fest, allowing people to see and possibly try out adaptive equipment like the soccer ball for players with visual impairments. 

She says the club allows area residents with disabilities to sample a variety of sports without having to invest money before they know if they like them or not.

"Adaptive equipment is pretty costly," Oliver says. "You can participate and try something without having to own the equipment."

Oliver is pursuing a certification for inclusive and adaptive training and hopes to expand the club's offerings starting in January. She says her dream is to offer four-week blocks of sports or recreation activities, like pickleball, tai chi, or adaptive yoga. 

Oliver says the club is also exploring funding options from grants to crowdfunding to add more equipment. Sports wheelchairs, which have slanted wheels and a lower center of gravity to prevent tipping during play, are currently near the top of the club's wish list. The club was able to rent some from Michigan State University (MSU) for earlier events, but MSU's adaptive sports program took off and no longer has any to spare, Oliver says.

Silander says she agreed to be the club's faculty advisor because the group promotes the same goals as TR.

"Whether [members] have a new disability or they were born with it, we're there to help them adapt and modify or teach them that they can still have recreation and leisure in their life," Silander says. "It might just look a little different."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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