Wheelchair Sports

Technology and changes in social attitudes have expanded access to athletic activities to many with disabilities. Even if you require the use of a wheelchair for mobility, you might be able to become an athlete, too.

Specially designed sports wheelchairs, which some refer to as "wheelchairs with attitude," are better suited for the rigors of competition than traditional chairs. If you want to get involved in wheelchair sports, it’s important – just as it is for any athlete – to have the right equipment. Having a wheelchair made specifically for your sport will not only give you a competitive edge, but guarantee the chair’s strength, stability and safety.

Sports wheelchairs are not made for everyday use, although some people do use them as their sole chair. They are usually built for use in a particular sport. Depending upon the activity, the wheelchair might be geared for speed, maneuverability or strength. Sports chairs are designed around feedback from wheelchair athletes who can offer insight into what features they need for maximum performance.

Streamlined in design, sports wheelchairs are typically rigid for strength and stability. They are adjustable, but since they do not fold up, they can be difficult to transport. Their light weight makes them responsive and easier to propel, which also helps athletes avoid wrist and shoulder injuries. Sports wheelchairs are made with a unique camber and a pronounced wheel angle that inhibits tipping and falling – a characteristic that is especially beneficial during fast, sharp turns. The two larger rear wheels and smaller lead wheels are configured for both aerodynamic effect and propulsion. They are also designed for strength so they can withstand an impact, while keeping the rider in the seat. Rider safety can be increased with the use of body straps.

Lightweight materials, such as carbon fiber and titanium, make this equipment fast and maneuverable. Sports wheelchairs usually weigh about 1/3 of what a conventional chair would weigh – some even as little as 15 pounds. However, this technology doesn’t come cheap. Costs range up to $11,000, although basic models that are less specialized can be purchased for less than $1,000. They are not usually covered by insurance. You could consider buying a used sports wheelchair to save money, but it might be difficult to find one that suits your needs, since most are customized to fit the needs of the prior owner.

Some of the most popular wheelchair sports include: basketball, dance sport, fencing, rugby, tennis, curling and skiing. An increase in interest and participation in wheelchair sports, as well as a greater availability of high-tech materials, has caused significant growth since the 1970s. The first major race to include a wheelchair division was the 1975 Boston Marathon. Finish times have decreased dramatically since then because of vast improvements in technology and wheelchair design.

Wheelchair sports originated with the Stoke-Mandeville Games in England in 1948, which served as the forerunner to the modern Paralympics movement. Paralympics is supported by the efforts of more than 150 national Paralympics organizations. It has created a structured wheelchair sports environment that continues to grow with each competition. Track and field is one of the best-known events in the Paralympics, where athletes compete in a variety of races, ranging from the 100 meter track event to the 26.2 mile marathon.

There are many organizations and teams that create, promote and organize opportunities in which wheelchair athletes can participate. Wheelchair Sports, formally known as the National Wheelchair Athletic Association, is a Member Organization of the United States Olympic Committee. About 30% of their membership is comprised of junior athletes, ages 5 to 18. Disabled Sports USA is one of a number of other organizations that promote wheelchair sports and events for disabled athletes.

United States

In the United States, there are now well-established sports programs for wheelchair users. Among these are

  • basketball leagues;
  • marathon racing;
  • rugby championships;
  • table tennis events;
  • tennis competitions;
  • track and field meets;
  • water skiing.

Related organizations include

Other international sports meetings

Apart from the Paralympics, a notable gathering is the Annual International Stoke Mandeville Games jointly run by the International Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Sports Federation (ISMWSF) and the International Sports Organization for the Disabled (ISOD).

Getting Outdoors

The US National Park Service says it makes “all practicable efforts to make NPS facilities, programs, services, information, employment, and meaningful work opportunities accessible and usable by all people.” They have a webpage on accessibility. The California State Park system has a list of some beaches that are configured for wheelchair access.

Dalhousie University Wheelchair Skills Program

There are many benefits for anyone who engages in sports, especially for people in wheelchairs. Depending on their disability, many wheelchair users can do strength training with weights. Exercise strengthens the body, improves agility, and boosts self-confidence. Many wheelchair athletes develop a great sense of camaraderie with other team members and individual participants.