By Daniel J. Vance


College students who use wheelchairs no longer must sit idly by on the sidelines and watch their friends play intercollegiate sports.

The creation of a wide variety of "adaptive sports" the last 20 years has helped make college athletics accessible to just about any of America's two million wheelchair users provided they attend the right college.

Adaptive sports players use special equipment or employ modified rules to make play possible.

Oklahoma State University is one of only a handful of universities with a full-fledged adaptive sports program. Wheelchair-using students there compete at "adaptive" versions of basketball, rugby, tennis, road racing, track & field, weightlifting, water skiing, softball, swimming, canoeing, table tennis and billiards.

OSU classifies eligible adaptive athletes as ones having a physical disability in their upper and lower extremities or ones using a power or manual wheelchair.

The only other U.S. universities with full-blown programs are Oklahoma, Southwest Minnesota State, Arizona, Texas-Arlington, Wisconsin-Whitewater, Illinois, and Edinboro (Penn.).

"We've had our [adaptive sports] program here only about three years," OSU Adaptive Sports Coordinator Ken Lee told me by telephone last week. Lee has had multiple knee problems himself, and one day will likely use crutches. "The growth in adaptive sports is slow because it's taking time for universities to catch on," he said.

Last season the OSU Cowboys wheelchair basketball team repeated as Arkansas Valley Conference Champions. The team recently landed a highly sought-after recruit from New Mexico.

While its program is strong and growing, OSU's isn't the oldest or largest by any means. That honor belongs to the University of Illinois, which had the idea of adaptive sports more than 50 years ago.

In the late 1940s, Timothy Nugent and a handful of students with disabilities (affectionately known as the "Gizz Kids") pioneered an Illinois program that would one day include archery, basketball, bowling, cheerleading, football, swimming, table tennis, and square dancing.

Coach Nugent's first wheelchair basketball team was a charter member of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. They won the NWBA National Championship three times, and finished in the Final Four 13 times in 1948-70.

Over the last 40 years, Illinois has dominated intercollegiate wheelchair track and road racing.

By choosing a college wisely, a talented wheelchair athlete can participate and compete in almost any sport.

[Mr. Vance's email is djv@mnic.net. Copyright 2002 by Daniel J. Vance.]