Photo courtesy of Grayson Buning/Daily.

Generally, when people first read about an initiative like expanding access to adaptive sports and fitness for athletes with disabilities, most grasp the importance of the cause. They understand that accessibility is important, that inclusivity is necessary and that working to make individuals with disabilities feel welcome in all spaces, athletic or otherwise, is the morally right thing to do. 

Undoubtedly, raising awareness for these initiatives is a step in the right direction. The problem, however, is the inevitable allure of complacency. The warm, optimistic feelings we get after reading about the incredible accomplishments of Michigan Adaptive Sports and Fitness (ASAF) athletes like wheelchair tennis player Chris Kelley are welcome, but they often cause us to lose sight of the bigger and more difficult challenges that lay ahead. 

While Michigan has made a point to publicly emphasize its commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives in recent years, disability is often left out of these discussions entirely. As such, despite ASAF’s growing notoriety both at Michigan and beyond, the program currently receives no funding from any level of Michigan athletics, enjoys no Varsity designation and has no spot on Michigan’s campus which it can call home. 

“What we’re trying to do is put everybody, of all levels, in a place where they have access to sports and fitness opportunities and are in no way impeded in this pursuit by the fact that they’re an athlete with a disability,” said Dr. Feranmi Okanlami, the Director of Michigan’s ASAF program. 

“People don’t realize what we’re fighting (against) to try and get access. And I don’t think getting access is very hard if people want it to happen.”

Others involved with the program strike similar tones. 

“I think we as a culture often tend to ‘throw away’ our kids with disabilities,” Dr. Royster Harper, the former Vice President for Student Life at Michigan which houses the ASAF program, said. “I don’t think it’s from a malicious place, but if we think it’s going to be harder or more challenging, we tend to shy away from it. We haven’t developed our capacity to just see the raw potential regardless of how it looks and shows up.” 

Establishing a presence

Without funding from Michigan athletics, ASAF has faced an uphill battle in establishing itself on campus. Luckily, two lifelong Michigan fans have filled that gap with a level of generosity that almost beggars belief. 

Alex and Marlene Miller are the parents of Adam Miller, a former Michigan student and staff writer for The Michigan Daily. In addition to being a lauded sportswriter, Adam detailed issues pertaining to campus accessibility and was a passionate disability advocate, as he himself lived with a physical disability resulting from neurofibromatosis, which ultimately took his life.  

“In honor of everything that Michigan and Michigan athletics meant to him and gave to him, we hope to assist these adaptive athletes who we are absolutely certain that (Adam) would have wanted to cover and be a part of his memory,” Marlene said. 

According to Alex and Marlene, Michigan did an exceptional job of meeting Adam’s needs so that he could fulfill his dreams as a student and journalist. One year, the Millers were even allotted a parking spot at Michigan Stadium so that Adam could get easy access to the press box before games. 

As such, they were surprised to learn of Michigan athletics’ lackluster support for the program upon meeting Okanlami and hearing of his mission.

“There were a lot of basic, fundamental needs that any Michigan athlete should expect and does receive that these athletes were not receiving,” Marlene said. “And it was so contrary to our experience with Adam that we felt that we could do no less than to try and provide these athletes with that same experience.” 

It’s hard to say where the program would be without the support of the Millers. With their contributions, the program has been able to purchase apparel and a trailer to transport equipment to and from competitions, establish the Saul B. Lederer Adaptive Tennis Head Coach award and renovate the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living such that the athletes now have a suitable space to work out, albeit off-campus.

Additionally, this greater financial freedom has allowed the program to expand to seven athletes in a relatively brief span of time. Among them are elite competitors in wheelchair tennis, wheelchair basketball and adaptive track and field. In April, the tennis athletes will head to Orlando, where they’ll compete in the Collegiate Wheelchair Tennis Nationals, with all expenses covered by the Millers.

The Millers’s donations embody their fervent commitment to establishing equitable access to adaptive sports and recreation at Michigan. Michigan athletics, however, has remained largely silent.

“We’re frustrated by this pace,” Marlene said. “We’re surprised that more has not happened and that more is not happening with more urgency. But we’re confident that (Michigan athletics) know(s) what the right thing to do is here — that these are Michigan athletes, and that they know what is to be given to Michigan athletes in terms of support and facilities. We know they’re going to catch up. But until then, we’re filling that gap.”

Catching up

For both the current and future Michigan adaptive athletes, a lot rests on the University “catching up.” Currently, access to Michigan athletics facilities is limited. Fortunately, the ASAF program has been successful in fostering a relationship with the Varsity Tennis Center, which allows the program’s trailer to be stored on their property. It has also provided a closet for the adaptive tennis team’s equipment and allows the team to utilize the space for five nights per week at the cost of membership and court fees. However, according to Okanlami, they’ve made it clear that this level of access won’t persist when demand for the facility inevitably increases once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. 

The program has been able to secure a few nights per week of access to the Michigan’s varsity track and field facility for the adaptive track and field athletes, but this comes at a cost of $200 per hour. For a program relying entirely on donor and grant support, this is no small fee. 

Due to a combination of COVID-19 related restrictions and lack of institutional support, the wheelchair basketball athletes currently have no place to play on campus. In the meantime, they’ve switched over to playing wheelchair tennis. One only needs to imagine the absurdity of asking a varsity basketball player to “switch over to tennis for a little while” to fully grasp the relative levels of importance that Michigan athletics has assigned to these programs. 

This instability has real consequences in terms of how the program can plan for the future, according to ASAF Program Manager Erik Robeznieks. 

“If there’s no consistency or stability of programming, it makes it very difficult for us to be able to advertise and promote our program to prospective student-athletes,” Robeznieks said. “It’s hard recruiting athletes and telling them that they can come to Michigan and that we’ll give them five days a week of practice and that we’ll get them in strength and conditioning facilities when we know that we’ll be battling day-in and day-out just to get and maintain access at those facilities.”

While thankful for the partnerships and access that ASAF has been able to secure with so far, Okanlami is far from satisfied. The mission is to establish equitable access to sports and fitness at all levels, whether that be varsity, club or recreational, so much work remains to be done. In the past, ASAF has tried to partner with Michigan Recreational Sports in order to make inroads toward this end. However, Okanlami says, a productive, lasting relationship has thus far failed to materialize.

“Recreational sports has not welcomed us with open arms,” Okanlami said. 

Previously, there has been some successful collaboration between ASAF and Recreational Sports, but it’s been short-lived. The two worked together to offer intramural wheelchair basketball during the 2018-19 school year and had great success — 11 teams signed up. 

However, despite this promising start, intramural wheelchair basketball was not offered the following year. Why? Depends on who you ask. 

Okanlami cites a lack of coordination and planning by Recreational Sports. Andy Boehnlein, Michigan’s Assistant Director of Intramural Sports & Adaptive Recreation, believes otherwise. 

“We unfortunately did not have any teams register and so the season did not run,” Boehnlein wrote in an email to The Daily. “Pending COVID restrictions, we are planning to continue to offer (intramural wheelchair basketball) in the future.”

While the reason that intramural wheelchair basketball only lasted one year may be unclear, what is clear is that effective communication between ASAF and Recreational Sports is almost entirely absent. 

According to Okanlami, this has made for a “difficult” relationship. When asked about these difficulties, Boehnlein simply responded that he has not been made aware of them, but maintained that facility renovations will generate more accessibility in the future.

While any movements to expand access to inclusive fitness and recreation are steps in the right direction, Okanlami explained that he is concerned that ASAF, the adaptive sports authority at Michigan, has not been consulted about any of these plans. Okanlami is confident that an effective partnership between ASAF and Recreational Sports holds enormous potential for working toward expanding access to adaptive sports, but recreational sports has yet to initiate this dialogue.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Ultimately, for those involved in the program, this is much bigger than just the program itself. It’s bigger than getting access to Michigan athletics facilities, establishing a varsity program or competing for national championships. 

“This represents the fight for our nation and our world to recognize the fact that we don’t have equal access for all types of people,” said Okanlami. “It’s about diversity, equity and inclusion and making sure that everybody is in a campus culture and climate where they can feel valued and thrive.”

For Harper, Michigan has a responsibility to join this fight.

“I think for students who want to play sports and need some adaptations to be able to play and want to be at Michigan, then our obligation, our commitment as an institution to be should provide that experience,” said Harper. “We pride ourselves on our athletics, we rave about how many people are in our stadiums, how many championships we’ve won — we really embrace athletics and our athletes. We say they enrich our institution. All the stuff we say about why we have athletics is also why we should have adaptive sports.”

In terms of adaptive sports at Michigan, the “champions,” as Harper calls them, are here. Despite a near complete lack of institutional support, the program has been able to grow rapidly with the help of people like Okanlami, Robeznieks, Harper and the Millers, and it shows no signs of slowing down. 

Dr. Philip Zazove, Chair of Michigan Medicine’s Department of Family Medicine and early sponsor of the ASAF program, is optimistic that the efforts of these champions will lead to real institutional change. 

“We haven’t yet gotten to a point where adaptive sports are glorified to the same extent as able-bodied sports are,” said Zazove. “I think we’ll get to this point, though, and what Dr. Okanlami is doing with this program is he’s starting that revolution.”

In order for adaptive sports and fitness to really take hold at Michigan, however, the program needs the support of the institution. While they’re frustrated that this support hasn’t yet arrived, they’re confident that it eventually will.

Until then?

“We’re not going away,” Okanlami said.

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