Cathryn Gray isn’t used to being around people like her. She’s a 4.0 student, an internationally decorated athlete, the first female member of Michigan’s Adaptive Sports and Fitness Program — and she has Cerebral Palsy.
Cerebral Palsy is a mobility disorder caused by abnormal brain development or damage to the developing brain. Often, it imparts a very distinct gait.
So when Gray saw Maddy Gustafson walking through her residence hall on move-in day, she immediately knew that she had found someone like her.
“I knew right away that she probably had CP (Cerebral Palsy) too,” Gray said.
Trying not to be too intrusive, Gray introduced herself to Gustafson and confirmed their similarities. In the course of their conversation, Gray revealed to Gustafson that she was at Michigan on an Adaptive Track and Field scholarship.
Gustafson had no idea these sorts of opportunities existed at Michigan. The absence of attention to disability paid by her hometown community had meant that for Gustafson, the expectation that she could participate in sports had evaporated. Despite her love of running, Gustafson had last been able to be as active as she’d hoped to be during her middle school years. Eagerly, Gustafson accepted Gray’s invitation to accompany her to the next adaptive Track and Field practice.
Fast forward four months, Gustafson and Gray are best friends and teammates, looking forward to competing alongside one another for the first time once it’s safe.
“I know from my own experience how isolating CP can be,” Gray said. “Being a woman with a disability, it can be really hard to find other people like you. I don’t think anyone would turn down the opportunity to be a part of a community. It changed my life, so I’m going to take any opportunity I can to help the program grow.”
Sadly, Gustafson’s example is a common one. Most communities are woefully far from recognizing adaptive sports as a necessary facet of the sporting experience. In place of making the necessary accommodations so that individuals with disability can participate in sports alongside those with able bodies, many schools instead elect to offer individuals with disability special positions like team manager, or token gestures like two minutes of playing time during the last game of the season.
This lackluster effort at inclusivity is exactly what the University of Michigan’s Adaptive Sports and Fitness program aims to address. During a time in which public health measures necessarily disincentivize neighborliness, Gray’s efforts to befriend and include Gustafson embody the vision of the program according to its founder and director, Dr. Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, affectionately known around campus as “Dr. O.”
“We have to create equal access to physical and emotional health and wellness for students with disabilities,” Okanlami said. “As a physician, recognizing the importance of physical fitness for everyone, let alone those with disabilities, is something that we’re trying to close the disparity gap on and make sure that marginalized, underrepresented minority groups like individuals with disabilities have access to physical fitness and therefore a more healthy life.”
When individuals with physical disabilities aren’t physically active, their muscles often begin to atrophy, or degenerate. As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult to move around. Thus, as both Okanlami and Gray underscore, ready access to adaptive sports for individuals with disabilities is crucial.
Importantly, however, Okanlami stresses that this access should take shape in the form of a program which both individuals with and without disabilities can participate in.
“This is diversity, equity and inclusion,” Okanlami said. “If we have a way that we can create the parameters to allow everyone to participate while not limiting the opportunities for the individuals with disabilities, we’re going to do that.”
Establishing and growing this program hasn’t come without obstacles, Okanlami explained.
“Major hurdle number one is awareness,” Okanlami said. “We’re trying to get people to recognize that disability is not inability – that disability does not make them any less of an athlete and that it does not lessen their desire, drive, or need for physical activity in sport.”
Gray echoed Okanlami’s sentiment. “I don’t see a lot of people with disabilities in the media, so sometimes having a disability like CP can be a little bit lonely.”
For Okanlami, the Michigan community has a long way to go in order to catch up to other established programs around the nation.
“If we want to be the leaders and the best in this arena, we could be,” Okanlami said. “But we have to acknowledge that right now, not only are we not the best, we are not leading, and we are not even in the conversation.”
Okanlami laid out how schools like Alabama, which has a $10 million facility dedicated exclusively to adaptive athletics, and Illinois, a widely-recognized powerhouse in wheelchair racing, are “blowing Michigan out of the water.”
He stressed that in addition to expanding programs like this one, introducing adaptive sports to younger people is even more important. As such, one of the program’s main objectives is to integrate adaptive sports into the state of Michigan’s K-12 curriculum.
“We’re trying to change that misperception, that stigma,” Okanlami said, “and we’re starting that around the elementary school level so that kids don’t see disability as a negative, they just see it as another aspect of the things that make us different.”
Okanlami spoke of this process of “mainstreaming” adaptive sports as a sort of Gestalt switch. Wheelchairs, traditionally seen as impediments to sports like basketball or tennis, should instead be seen as necessary equipment for playing wheelchair basketball or wheelchair tennis, just as ice-skates are seen as necessary for playing ice hockey.
“This doesn’t mean you have to use a chair in your real life, but when you’re playing (wheelchair basketball), that’s how you play this sport,” Okanlami said.
Currently, the Adaptive Sports and Fitness program houses wheelchair tennis, wheelchair basketball, and track and field, and is incorporating para-equestrian activities. In the future, Okanlami would like to see the program expand into other sports, such as golf and wheelchair racing.
Gray, among others, seeks to expand the influence of the program in other ways.
“What I really want to do is to use competing as a vehicle for positive change,” Gray said. “I want to grow the program and speak about disability issues like my mom did for me growing up. I want to do that for other people.”
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