It's no secret that participating in sports and recreation offers a wealth of benefits in terms of physical and emotional health. For people with disabilities,

It's no secret that participating in sports and recreation offers a wealth of benefits in terms of physical and emotional health. For people with disabilities, there is no difference. Fortunately, there are increasing opportunities in a number of traditional and emerging sports for disabled athletes at both competitive and recreational levels.

“We all have to have balance in our life, between family, work, physical and spiritual life,” says David Kiley, basketball director, Sunrise Medical, Longmont, Colo., and director of adaptive sports and recreation for the Charlotte Institute of Rehab in Charlotte, N.C. “Having a disability is not an excuse to be inactive. It is important to set fitness or competitive goals to enhance your confidence and level of well-being.”

Basketball, tennis, quad rugby and softball are some of the most popular adaptive sports. “In North America, the numbers support basketball as being most popular because there are so many organizations and conferences throughout the country,” says Kiley.

Kiley says hand cycling has also created a great deal of interest recently. “Hand cycling is probably the sport that has the most buzz of growth and interest — it is a sport that crosses all lines between gender and age and is a wonderful recreational sport with family and friends,” he says. “From my experience in the national rehab sports market, people are pulling away from road racing and going into hand cycling. It is new, exciting and will, for the first time, be a competitive event in the September 2004 Paralympic Games in Greece.”

Rick Cooper, Elyria, Ohio-based Invacare Corp.'s consumer interface manager, agrees. “The fastest-growing sport is hand cycling,” he says. “Part of the reason is that as the track generation gets older, they still want to compete and exercise, so they're moving into hand cycling.”

Another reason the sport is growing at such a high rate is that it levels the playing field. With a hand cycle, a child or teenager can go ride bikes with neighborhood friends and family.

Wheelchair arena football is another sport that is just now emerging, says John Box, president of Colours in Motion, Anaheim, Calif. “Arena football is the next hot, crazy wheelchair sport,” he says. “It is months, if not weeks, away from being chartered in Southern California.”

As interest in different sports grows, so does the need for more advanced equipment. Box says today's products are only limited by the sports' rules and that it is time to “open the gate” and allow more technological enhancements. “If the rules became more flexible, then the designs could be more beneficial for the athletes,” he explains.

Jack Berman, executive director of Adaptive Adventures, located in Chicago and Evergreen, Colo., says available products are not fully developed and believes there will be significant improvement over the next dcade.

“The key is to figure out a way to make a more affordable piece of equipment,” he says. “Hopefully, we will see better products that are also more affordable.”

Mary Carol Peterson, OTR/L, product manager for Invacare Top End, says the industry for sports wheelchairs is at an advantage because it can focus on research and development and improve existing products quickly.

Colours, Invacare and Sunrise Medical all rely on experienced athletes to offer design feedback and suggestions.

“Sunrise Medical has always taken product information and suggestions from our athletes and other lifestyle ambassadors very seriously,” says Christy Shimono, the company's senior product manager. “We have never stopped engaging athlete ideas and have expanded beyond sports products to all of our mobility products.”

Kiley adds that many of the technological advances in sports equipment easily roll over into mainstream products, and that athletes have been responsible for these advances. “Athletes are always looking at getting more from their product; they want it lighter, faster and more streamlined,” he says.

Box says it gets personal when athletes have specific ideas about what they want out of a sports chair. “It has gotten to the point now where we have a one-on-one meeting with a top athlete, and, essentially, we're making a new chair every time we meet with one of these guys.”


As exciting as the world of wheelchair sports is, some providers may hesitate to get involved in the market because it can be costly to enter. And, volume may not be what they see in everyday wheelchair sales. However, there are benefits.

“It's almost like it's [providers'] obligation not just to sell people their everyday chairs but to look beyond that — there's a whole other market out there,” says Peterson.

Box believes community involvement is the way to go for HME providers to be successful in this area. “Making the decision [to sell sport-specific wheelchairs] usually means involvement with local organizations,” he says.

“Once providers become aligned with the events, they typically get the sport wheelchair business as well as the other business that goes with it, which is the everyday stuff.”

Box suggests that providers who are serious about becoming involved in the sports market start out by setting up repair services for local sporting events. That's how providers make a name for themselves, which in turn creates future sales, he says.

The bottom line, says Peterson, is creating alliances with local rehab centers. “Providers are already marketing to rehab centers and working with the physical and recreational therapists,” she explains.

The next step is to work with these centers to set up camps, expos or other events that support adaptive athletics.

“It's a bit of an investment time-wise to participate in the local events, whether it be rugby, basketball, football or tennis, but eventually providers can start building a network, and people will go to them just because they are connected with these events,” says Box.

It is important to note that business may not build right away. “You are not going to see immediate sales, but if you stick to it, you will have long-term customers established because the people become very grateful to you for doing those events, and in turn, you almost start to control that community,” he says.

Wheelchairs — both sport-specific and everyday models — are changing. Tech-nology is improving product performance, and manufacturers have not let up on improving design and function.

Although there are the traditional challenges of funding, access and product awareness, today's wheelchair athletes have the ability to participate in practically any sport that interests them.

And they have products that won't stop when it comes to performance.

Adaptive Sports Programs Meet Year-Round Needs

In addition to city and local sport leagues, such as those sponsored by the United States Tennis Association and the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, there are numerous adaptive sporting programs available across the United States. Camps and events now focus on a variety of sporting activities — from snow skiing to water sports to camping, fishing, basketball and tennis. Specialty camps also offer everything from pool playing to scuba diving.

Joel Berman, executive director of Adaptive Adventures, a nonprofit organization with offices in Chicago and Evergreen, Colo., says the benefits of participating in adaptive athletics are priceless. “I believe that everything in life starts in your head, so we work with mostly physically disabled people, and their brains work just like everyone else's,” he explains. “A lot of life is how you perceive it, not necessarily what it actually is, and getting out and getting active is just a means to an end.”

“Obviously, the fitness side, the reduction in secondary conditions … is very easy to understand, just like with an able-bodied person,” says Berman, who lost his left leg above the knee while working on a railroad project during college. “It is the self-esteem and the independence and some of the other things that can sometimes get lost or be hurt by a severe disability, and we see those benefits all the time [when someone participates].”

Berman says Nordic and Alpine skiing are the most popular winter sports for participants with his organization, and there is a growing interest in summer sports. Water skiing and hand cycling are the top sports for summer customers, and the company also offers canoeing, kayaking and sailing.

Adaptive Adventures strongly recommends that providers advise their sports customers to “check out” camps and events before traveling great distances to participate. Some questions to ask:

Do you know anyone who has participated in the program in the past?

  • Are the instructors well-trained and/or certified in the activities that they are teaching? What kind of previous experience do the staff and volunteers possess?

  • Who is responsible for training staff and volunteers?

  • Does the program do a personal evaluation to assess goals, objectives and needs?

  • What types of adaptive equipment does the program provide? What condition is the equipment in? Can the equipment be rented for personal use?

  • How accessible are the facilities associated with the program? Issues such as parking, ramps, shuttles and distances to be covered are all important.

  • What are the costs to participate? Are any discounts or scholarships offered?

  • Will the organization involved give references?

    The Vicious Cycle

    Hand cycles are a sure sale, states Mary Carol Peterson, product manager for Invacare Top End, where hand cycle sales made up 40 percent of the line in the last year. However, there can be obstacles to getting the products in front of end users.

    Some providers hesitate to stock hand cycles because of the up-front costs, Peterson says, yet that creates a “chicken-and-egg” syndrome. “This is the biggest challenge with hand cycles … Everybody wants to try one before they buy one, but once they try one, they'll buy it,” she contends. It's important that potential purchasers are able to test a hand cycle through a local provider.

    Another situation, common across all sports retail stores these days, is that once customers try out a hand cycle, some may then shop online for the best price. To avoid losing the sale, providers need to be competitive with their pricing and become experts at selling the equipment, Peterson says.

    “As long as they let me know that they have a bike, I will make sure that they get put on my master referral list and send people to them,” she says. “I will make sure that our customer service department knows what bike they have and where they are located, and we'll refer people directly to their store.”

    Lisa Stein, CEO of Product Pros, a distributor in Columbus, Ohio, also says hand cycles are “the latest and greatest,” and a good alternative for customers who have used racing chairs.

    “Hand cycling is faster, easier on their shoulders, and considered a very new and exciting sport. It is where the sales press is in the sport category,” she says.

    According to Peterson, customers with spinal cord injuries, spina bifida, lower extremity amputations and orthotic impairments of the hip or knee, as well as able-bodied individuals, can benefit from and participate in hand cycling.

    But before providers recommend a product, it is important to establish the customer's goals. Is the goal to use the cycle for recreation, family outings, racing, transportation, cross-training or arm strengthening? Peterson says other considerations include the customer's transfer skill and trunk balance, as well as the type of terrain on which the athlete will most likely often ride.