Increasing Inclusion in Sports and Recreation

“I’m here to say that everyone gets to play sports.” In an auditorium full of sixth graders, that phrase is met with roaring cheers and thundering applause. 

Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, MD, Director of University of Michigan Student Accessibility and Accommodation Services and U-M Adaptive Sports & Fitness, had occasion to repeat that phrase many times in recent months, as he visited  Ann Arbor middle schools to introduce the Adaptive Sport and Recreation Initiative, in which adaptive sports are embedded into physical education programming. 

The goal of the U-M program is to increase access to and participation in adaptive sports and fitness—but not just among people with disabilities. Through the Adaptive Sport and Recreation Initiative, funded by the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, every sixth grader in Ann Arbor Public Schools — with or without disabilities — can participate in adaptive sports during physical education classes. 

To introduce students and teachers to the program, U-M staff and program participants ventured out to seven Ann Arbor middle schools to demonstrate, discuss, and invite participation in adaptive sports to sixth graders across the district.

“We want to make sure that everybody has a chance to play together.”

Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, MD

“We are trying to teach every single one of you that while we are all different in some ways, different doesn’t mean bad. If we can change the way all you in sixth grade see disability, we can change a lot more,” Okanlami said to the students at Slauson Middle School. 

He shared his story: an Academic All American track and field athlete at Stanford University, he earned his MD from the University of Michigan and was in the  third year of an orthopaedic surgery residency at Yale when he went to a Fourth of July pool party. In an instant, his life changed: a swimming injury left him  with a spinal cord injury, paralyzed from the chest down. 

“I was good at sports, and when I was paralyzed from the chest down, I didn’t know what my life would be. I thought that it isn’t fair that we don’t have a lot of sports opportunities for people who use wheelchairs, for people who are blind or who have other disabilities,” Okanlami said. Through his founding of the U-M Adaptive Sports & Fitness program in 2018, he’s helping to change that for the Ann Arbor and surrounding communities.

“I didn’t know what disability meant. You probably think of disability as inability. The way the world talks to you about disability is that you can’t do something,” he says. “People with disabilities don’t always get the same access because the way the world talks about disability makes it seem like something is wrong with the person rather than we need to do something different.” 

Okanlami, and everyone affiliated with U-M Adaptive Sports & Fitness, wants to show not just Ann Arbor, but communities across the state — and the nation — that adaptive sports are for everyone. The program is well on the way to achieving its dual goals of raising awareness and increasing access for all.

Access to being active 

One of the most important parts of the messaging is that adaptive sports are for everyone, and the adaptive sports staff makes sure to emphasize that when speaking at schools. 

“Adaptive sports are not just for people with disabilities. Adaptive sports are a way to make sports and recreation inclusive,” said Erik Robeznieks, assistant director of U-M Adaptive Sports & Fitness. 

At one of the assemblies, a student using a wheelchair cheered enthusiastically for the adaptive sports athletes’ demonstrations of how to play wheelchair basketball and tennis, and showing the different ways they navigate and maneuver on a court. Students who had participated in  adaptive sports before talked about their past experience, and were excited to try new things.

“It was great to see how much fun the students were having,” Okanlami said after one of the assemblies. “We want to make sure that this is not just DEI, not just inclusion, but that the kids see that it is fun, because that’s what will allow them to really be engaged. It was so exciting to see how much fun they had and how engaged they were, I was feeding off them the entire time.” 

Kristin Stoops, a physical education and health teacher at Slauson Middle School said the presentation was “amazing” and is looking forward to the adaptive sports curriculum. 

“I loved seeing the students’ attention and their engagement with everything that was included in this presentation and this experience,” Stoops said.

“It’s so important, just like Dr. O described, to give people with disabilities opportunities to play with their friends who might have a variety of different abilities to really provide all the benefits of sports and recreation to everyone.” 

Kristin Stoops, Slauson Middle School teacher

“Far too often, students with disabilities are relegated to sitting on the sidelines during PE classes,” Robeznieks said. 

“I was that kid,” said Christopher Kelley, U-M Adaptive Sports & Fitness program coordinator. “I was that middle school kid who was sitting on the sidelines watching my classmates participate and wanting to find ways to be included.” 

The reason Adaptive Sports & Fitness is doing this, Okanlami said, is because everyone deserves the opportunity to be active. While the program is currently in the Ann Arbor school district, they are already thinking of ways to integrate it into PE curricula in communities throughout Michigan and beyond. 

“The goal is truly to integrate and disseminate adaptive sports across not just the Ann Arbor community, but eventually across the entire country so that everyone knows if you can sit, you can play,” Okanlami said. 

The U-M wheelchair basketball team huddled in a circle on a basketball court around coach Jessica Wynne.

Sports are sports

Robeznieks performed tricks in the wheelchair he uses for wheelchair basketball, including balancing the chair on one wheel and lifting the chair off the ground in a jump, to audible gasps from the students in the audience.  As multiple wheelchair basketball team members demonstrated the speed they use in the games, students were shouting with excitement. They watched, elated, as team members passed a goalball ball across the stage at rapid speeds, listening for the sound the ball made, since as players in the game wear blindfolds. 

Kelley, who is from Grand Haven, was born with a disability and couldn’t participate in many athletic programs. He told  students at Forsythe Middle School that his dad and brother often played tennis, and they found a wheelchair tennis program for him in Grand Rapids. He went on to become the top wheelchair tennis player in the world, deciding to come to U-M because he heard the university was creating an adaptive sports program.

Christopher Kelley, program coordinator at U-M Adaptive Sports & Fitness, playing wheelchair tennis.

“It’s an awesome sport to be able to play…I play in a wheelchair, but I play with my brother who plays standing up. Sometimes my brother plays in a wheelchair. Anybody can play with anybody and it’s super fun,” Kelley said.  

U-M student and wheelchair tennis athlete Caiden Baxter, originally from Niles, Mich., told the sixth graders about an injury he experienced in high school that led to partial paralysis from the waist down. Students listened attentively, and were later excited to see Baxter navigate the stage in demonstrations. 

He admits he enjoyed the event as much as the students. “It was super cool to give them the knowledge…that people with disabilities can play sports and that those without disabilities can play the sports with them. It’s just so exciting to see. I know at that age I loved sports and I did not know anything about adaptive sports,” Baxter said.

Wheelchair basketball coach Jessica Wynne (‘09), from Detroit, told the students about her basketball career and how she learned to play wheelchair basketball, which she now considers her most beloved sport. 

Three individuals in wheelchairs and one person standing on a stage overlooking an auditorium with middle schoolers seated.

“One thing we can all do to make sure we feel welcome is to try,” she encouraged the middle schoolers. “Give it a good try because you never know what your next favorite sport might be.” 

When students were invited to play sitting volleyball at the assemblies, they were ecstatic to be a part of it. Adjusting their stances to remain sitting the whole time, they worked with team members to try to keep the volleyball in the air. With coaching from the adaptive sports athletes, and thunderous cheers from their classmates watching in the stands, the sixth graders worked together for a joyous competition — an example of what they have to look forward to in the program, as they learn other sports like wheelchair basketball and tennis. 

“One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is when we have our adaptive student-athletes onstage, because they are able to connect with people that see themselves represented,” Robeznieks said.

“Adaptive sports are for everyone,” Okanlami emphasized before the assemblies ended. “If you can sit, you can play.”