Sports as empowerment

Providing opportunities to engage with athletes of all abilities


by James Heffernan

wheelchair basketball
Pick-up wheelchair basketball games at UREC are among the many options available to athletes with disabilities.

SUMMARY: Three professors are leading Madison's efforts to empower individuals, families, future professionals and communities through exposure to adapted sport and disability sport.

from the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Madison

In a perfect world, JMU students, faculty and staff could walk into the University Recreation Center, check out a wheelchair—like they would any other piece of equipment—and join a game of pick-up basketball.

In a perfect world, all students, regardless of their major, would have the opportunity to learn to play an adapted sport from Paralympians.

In a perfect world, community members would support athletes with disabilities with the same enthusiasm that they do participants without disabilities in recreation leagues and varsity sports.

Three JMU professors are working to make these visions a reality. Tom Moran and Cathy McKay (’98) in kinesiology and Josh Pate in the Hart School of Hospitality, Sport and Recreation Management are leading Madison’s efforts to empower individuals, families, future professionals and communities through exposure to adapted sport and disability sport.

Their goals align with the university’s efforts at diversity and inclusion.

“One of the encouraging things at JMU is hearing President Alger always include disability in the conversation about diversity,” Pate says. “That has been essential for setting the tone for what and how disability is treated on campus. Across the nation, that’s not the case.”

“We provide opportunities for everyone to engage with those of all abilities,” Moran adds, “and make them enlightened in a way where they don’t just see what people can’t do, but learn to celebrate what they can do.”

When Moran came to JMU nine years ago, the only sports programs for community members with disabilities were Special Olympics, which served mostly adults, and Challenger baseball, a division of Little League. So he started an adapted physical education class for area youth involving practicum students in kinesiology. “When it was over, the parents said to me, ‘This is great! What can my kid do the rest of the year?’”

In 2010, Moran secured federal funds to launch Overcoming Barriers, a community-based health and wellness mentoring program for people with disabilities. Today, Overcoming Barriers offers 18 after-school programs ranging from fitness and aquatics to golf and karate. The outreach initiative serves more than 200 children, adolescents and adults with disabilities each year, and involves hundreds of JMU student volunteers from a variety of backgrounds and academic disciplines.

Moran and Pate collaborated on an IDEA diversity grant in 2013 to host Adapted Sports Day at JMU, which is designed to expose middle-school, high-school and college-eligible participants with disabilities to a college campus using the power of sport.

JMU also hosts Ability Olympics during the fall and spring semesters. The games are set up like the Olympic Games, with a variety of events, opening and closing ceremonies, and a medals presentation. The fall event is a celebration for local families; the spring event draws youth with disabilities and their families from all across Virginia and neighboring states, and it also allows participants in the Overcoming Barriers program to showcase what they have learned.

UREC has made adaptations for individuals with disabilities at many of its attractions, including the climbing wall, aquatics center, group workouts and fitness classes, and the Sentara Park rope course. Pick-up wheelchair basketball games are available on Friday afternoons, and an inaugural tournament for faculty and students was held in March.

sports as empowerment-ballour
U.S. Paralympic Soccer player Adam Ballou (’15) is one of the featured athletes in professor Cathy McKay’s (’98) Paralympic Skills Lab.

Cathy McKay’s Paralympic Skills Lab exposes students enrolled in Kinesiology 100, a General Education course, to adapted sport. Instead of developing traditional skills like cardio, weights or yoga, the students are introduced to sitting volleyball, para-soccer, wheelchair basketball and other Paralympic sports. “The response has been amazing,” McKay says. “The power of inclusive sport becomes very real for everyone involved, and in turn, attitudes and perceptions are shifted. Our students … come to know and understand the lived experiences of the Paralympians through the skill lab.”

The ripple effects of such exposure can be transformational, Moran says. “When our students leave here and go into their communities, they can launch these opportunities or otherwise get involved in making them happen. That’s true empowerment.”

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Published: Thursday, April 13, 2017

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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