For years, Eddie Elinburg was the go-to guy.
“If you called me at three in the morning, I’d be there to change your tire,” Elinburg said. “People counted on me.”
But since losing both of his legs in a hit-and-run vehicle accident in 2011, things have been different for Elinburg.
“Now, I have to go to others for help,” Elinburg said. “I just wasn’t used to that. There were some pretty hard times.”
Through sports, however, Elinburg was able to begin restoring balance to his life. Individual sports like pool, darts and horseshoes came first. Once he had mastered those, Elinburg began to seek out other adaptive sports, hoping to challenge himself and boost his fitness.
Unfortunately, these opportunities were few and far between. Despite his motivation, Elinburg struggled to find any adaptive sports programs in Canton, Mich., where he lives. At one point, Elinburg frequently took days off work and to make the hour-long trip to Lansing, just to take part in a few hours of adaptive sports programming at Michigan State.
This summer, Michigan’s Adaptive Sports and Fitness (ASAF) program began hosting biweekly wheelchair basketball and tennis drop-in sessions open to Michigan staff, faculty, and students, as well as all members of the community. Through this programming, a full 10 years after his injury, Elinburg finally gained the reliable, local access to competitive adaptive sports programming he had so desired.
“When (they) reached out, my head lit up like a Christmas tree,” Elinburg said. “I don’t know who sent the email, but I want to thank them for that, because that’s what’s keeping me happy.”
Elinburg attended wheelchair basketball practices consistently throughout the summer, improving markedly as a player with the help of veteran player-coaches Alex Saleh and Spencer Heslop. In fact, despite only having begun playing wheelchair basketball recently, Elinburg will suit up for Michigan this fall as part of the program’s first ever NWBA team.
While Elinburg’s story is rounded out by a happy ending, his struggle to find adaptive sports and fitness opportunities is unfortunately common among individuals with disabilities.
“I was injured just over five years ago and I’ve been trying to scope out adaptive sports programs ever since,” said Laura Stark, a fellow Canton resident and Elinburg’s soon-to-be NWBA teammate. “I feel like they’re there, but they’re not advertised well.”
Stark, like Elinburg, was a frequent drop-in attendee this summer and has taken quickly to wheelchair basketball. While she’s always been active, she longed for the opportunity to play as part of a team.
“Wheelchair basketball is a community,” Stark said. “A lot of other adaptive sports I’ve played in the past are single player, where it’s only up to you. But when I play team sports, that’s where I feel the most value comes.”
For Michigan ASAF Assistant Director Erik Robeznieks, experiences like Elinburg’s and Stark’s are precisely why hosting consistent drop-in programming has been such an important goal for the program.
“By hosting these sessions, we’re trying to leverage our status as part of a great sporting and academic institution like the University of Michigan to address the gap that exists in the community for people with physical disabilities to engage in recreation, leisure and competitive adaptive sport,” Robeznieks said.
While providing a space for individuals to participate in adaptive sport is an important step toward Robeznieks’s goal, it’s not enough on its own to ensure that individuals who want to play can do so.
For example, sport wheelchairs are shockingly expensive. This cost, combined with the fact that individuals with disabilities are employed at approximately one-tenth the rate of those without, creates an insurmountable financial barrier for many.
To address this, with donor support, the ASAF program offers their programming completely free of charge while also providing sport wheelchairs and other equipment to all who need it.
“Even if it was free to play but you had to bring your own equipment, I think the numbers would drop significantly,” Stark said. “I couldn’t play. I don’t own a sports chair. Even for those in the disability community who do have jobs, you have to spend so much of your money on medical care and things like that — it makes a world of difference to be able to play for free.”
Echoed Elinburg: “Right now, if this wasn’t free, the activity I’d be doing is probably nothing.”
The obstacles to providing equitable access to sports and fitness don’t stop with finances. Many without disabilities simply lack an understanding of why providing adaptive sports is such a vital part of any community, leading to a lack of motivation among organizations and institutions to really do anything about the problem. To that end, the program stresses that the programming is open to all, regardless of disability status.
“Through drop-ins, we can bring adaptive sports to life in a sense,” Robeznieks said. “We can actually get people involved and allow them to form a personal connection with adaptive sports. That will allow them to … change whatever preexisting bias they may have, and it will allow them to appreciate adaptive sports for the sake of its skill and the athletic ability that is required to participate.”
Added Stark: “Bringing in people outside of the disability community is great because it shows that the sport is just as difficult this way as it is when played by able-bodied people. I hope that people will start to see that a wheelchair isn’t just a piece of medical equipment — anyone who wants to play wheelchair basketball needs a wheelchair. I think that will do a lot for awareness.”
While Robeznieks stresses that the most important goal of the drop-in programming is to provide equitable access to sports and fitness, he also hopes that by opening the program’s doors to all members of the community, they can accelerate the development of an elite-level wheelchair basketball team.
“We’re only going to be able to form competitive intercollegiate teams if we’re able to recruit athletes,” Robeznieks said. “But a common problem that we’ve had in trying to recruit athletes is them telling us to come back when we have a team.”
By participating in the NWBA’s adult division, the program will be able to field a team of both Michigan students and local community members. This way, the program can market itself to prospective athletes as having an established squad. Eventually, after the program can field a team in the intercollegiate division, this more recreational adult-division level team can continue to serve as a competitive outlet for community members like Elinburg and Stark.
After the success of drop-in programming this summer, Michigan ASAF plans to continue offering wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis and adaptive track and field sessions indefinitely — still free and still open to all, with or without disabilities.