The Active Life: Adaptive Sports

Posted: July 25, 2012

Goalball is played by visually impaired athletes. The three-on-three game uses a heavy ball with bells inside. Athletes use cord or thin rope taped to the floor to orient themselves. They stop the ball by blocking with their bodies. If the ball rolls past, a point is scored. (Photo by courtesy photo)

One of the great joys of my life is seeing people with special needs having the opportunity to participate in leisure activities and sport.  That passion has led me to write this article about opportunities available for everyone to stay active and experience the thrill of being involved in sport.

For many years, the local Special Olympics program has provided wonderful opportunities for staying active and engaged in competition. But many people may not be aware that there are a number of other adapted physical activity opportunities available in our area. In recent years, I think two of the most exciting are the Challenger Baseball program in Bridgewater and the construction of the A Dream Come True playground in Harrisonburg.

Challenger Baseball

My hat is off to Philip and Sue Hutchinson and Becky and Jack Martin for starting the Challenger program.  Rather than having children and young adults with disabilities (unique needs) sitting outside the fence cheering for their siblings, they are now on the field having the time of their lives. 

Students in my Adapted Physical Education and Sports class at Bridgewater College recently shared their experience volunteering with the Challenger program.

Al Dillon writes: “If you are sitting at home on a Wednesday evening from April to June, one sure way to put a smile on your face is to attend a Challenger Baseball game. I can assure you that there is never a dull moment at Oakdale Park in Bridgewater during these games. The players absolutely love to show their athletic abilities to the crowd. When people from the community come together to watch these athletes play, it is truly special.”

Rodney Colley writes: “’Slide, Jimmy! Slide!’ is a chant heard by all in attendance as one of the Challenger Baseball players in a wheelchair rounded third base headed for home. Between the crowd-pleasing hits, huge smiles, and the chicken dance, Challenger Baseball is good old-fashioned fun for participants and fans alike. Every child should have the opportunity to play sports.  This is a place where nobody is judged and everyone is a winner. It does not matter if you hit off of a tee or from a pitch, everyone cheers because the important thing is that everyone has fun. Programs for kids with disabilities are so very important. Everyone has the opportunity and ability to play. Children and young adults are benefiting from this program by getting exercise and developing memories that will last a lifetime.”

Adaptive Physical Activity

These experiences illustrate the importance of adapted physical activity—the use of physical activity for the education, wellness, sport participation and leisure of individuals with unique needs. Adapted sport refers to sport modification or creation to meet the needs of individuals with disabilities. Based on this definition, basketball is a regular sport and wheelchair basketball is an adapted sport. Another example is goalball, a game created for people who are blind or have visual impairments.

College student Vandon Kershner played goalball with the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind team: “It was a real challenge trying to block a ball rolling toward the goal without being able to see it but rather listening for the bell that was inside the ball,” he said.

We can all look for creative ways to provide sport opportunities for individuals with unique needs.

It is important to remember that having a disability is not a lack of ability. What is not often known is that people with disabilities, who are involved in physical activity and sport, achieve goals that many would think are impossible.

Jim Abbott, born without a right hand, pitched a no-hitter for New York Yankees against the Cleveland Indians in 1993.

Despite birth defects and polio,Wilma Rudolph was a triple gold medalist in the 100-meter, 200-meter and 400-meter relays in the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

Tom Dempsey, born with only half a right foot, set a National Football League record in 1970 for the longest field goal kicked (63 yd. or 58 m.) That record has been tied, but not broken.

The Paralympics, for elite athletes with disabilities, will be two weeks after the regular Olympics in England. I hope some of tbe games will be televised, because it is an inspiration to see what these athletes have accomplished in spite of their disabilities.  It will be interesting to see whether Lee Pearson will be able to repeat his stunning equestrian performance to capture three more gold medals in London.

Sharing Sports

People with disabilities have the same needs and desires to participate in activities and sports as people without disabilities. 

Adapted sport provides not only competitive athletic experiences, but also leisure-time recreation pursuits that enable an individual with a disability to practice healthy living.  A person with a visual impairment can ride a tandem bike and a person unable to walk can play wheelchair tennis. Hunting and fishing opportunities are also available. The possibilities for adapted activities are endless.

The state-of-the-art “A Dream Come True” playground in Harrisonburg originated from a local Girl Scout troop.  The troop members wanted a place where children with and without disabilities would be able to play together.  This playground provides an opportunity for all children to play side by side.  What a wonderful addition to our community!

We can all play a role in helping everyone continue to be active.  Volunteer to help with special programs in our community.

Encourage individuals with unique needs to be involved in these programs.


The key to ensuring quality experiences related to adapted activity and sport are the individuals who provide leadership for these activities.  Following are some of those inspirational people that I have had the privilege of working with.  They help provide excellent opportunities for everyone to “Stay Active.”

Phillip and Sue Hutchinson and Jack and Becky Martin lead the local Challenger Baseball program.
Visit or email

Tim Moubray is director of Orange County Parks and Recreation. He is involved with wheelchair basketball in Harrisonburg.
For more information, call (540) 672-5435, email or visit the Facebook page of the “Shenandoah Valley High Rollers.”

Tom Moran, a James Madison University professor, started the Overcoming Barriers program in 2010. Since then, he has supervised various adaptive sports programs, including a summer camp.

Daniel Leake is the regional director of Special Olympics. Call 433-7475 or email

Cindy Ferek, recently named National Physical Education Teacher of the Year, teaches adaptive physical education at Turner Ashby High School.

Kristy McClain coaches goalball at the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind.

Columnist Mary Frances Heishman is a professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Science at Bridgewater College, where she teaches courses in adaptive physical education and recreation.

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