Michelle Miller and Ellen S. Kaitz

Adapted sports for the disabled (DA) were introduced in the mid-20th century as a tool for the rehabilitation of injured war veterans. They have developed to encompass all ages, abilities, and nearly all sport and recreational activities, from backyards to school grounds to national, international, and Paralympic competitions. The trend in recent years has led sports away from its medical and rehabilitation roots to school- and community-based programs focused on wellness and fitness, rather than on illness and impairment. However, rehabilitation professionals remain connected in a number of important ways. Sports and recreation remain vital components of a rehabilitation program for individuals with new-onset disability. Furthermore, rehabilitation professionals may be resources for information and referral to community programs. They may be involved in the provision of medical care for participants or act as advisors for classification. As always, research to provide scientific inquiry in biomechanics, physiology, psychology, sociology, technology, sports medicine, and many related issues is a necessary component.


Sports and exercise have been practiced for millennia. Organized activities for adults with disabilities have more recent roots, going back to the 1888 founding of the first Sport Club for the Deaf in Berlin, Germany. The International Silent Games, held in 1924, was the first international competition for DA athletes. Deaf sports were soon followed by the establishment of the British Society of One-Armed Golfers in 1932. Wheelchair sports are younger still, having parallel births in Britain and the United States in the mid-1940s. Sir Ludwig Guttman at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, England, invented polo as the first organized wheelchair team sport. "It was the consideration of the over-all training effect of sport on the neuro-muscular system and because it seemed the most natural form of recreation to prevent boredom in hospital . . ." (1). Within a year, basketball replaced polo as the principle wheelchair team sport. In 1948, the first Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralyzed was held, with 16 athletes competing in wheelchair basketball, archery, and table tennis. This landmark event represented the birth of international sports competition for athletes with a variety of disabilities. The games have grown steadily, now comprising more than two dozen different wheelchair sports. The competitions are held annually in non-Olympic years, under the oversight of the International Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Sport Federation (ISMWSF).

While Guttman was organizing wheelchair sports in Britain, war veterans in California played basketball in the earliest recorded U.S. wheelchair athletic event. The popularity flourished, and, a decade later, the first national wheelchair games were held. These games also included individual and relay track events. With the success of these games, the National Wheelchair Athletic Association (NWAA) was formed. Its role was to foster the guidance and growth of wheelchair sports. It continues in this role today under its new name, Wheelchair Sports USA.

The U.S. teams made their international debut in 1960 at the first Paralympic s in Rome. The term "Paralympic" actually means "next to" or "parallel" to the Olympics. In the 54 years since, the number and scope of sport and recreational opportunities has blossomed. The National Handicapped Sports and Recreation Association (NHSRA) was formed in 1967 to address the needs of winter athletes. It has more recently been reorganized as Disabled Sports USA (DS/USA). The 1970s saw the development of the United States Cerebral Palsy Athletic Association (USCPAA) and United States Association for Blind Athletes (USABA). In 1978, Public Law 95-606, the Amateur Sports Act, was passed. It recognized athletes with disabilities as part of the Olympic movement and paved the way for elite athletic achievement and recognition.

In the 1980s, a virtual population explosion of sport and recreation organizations occurred. Examples of these organizations include the United States Amputee Athletic Association (USAAA), Dwarf Athletic Association of

America (DAAA), and the United States Les Autres Sports Association (USLASA; an association for those with impairments not grouped with any other sports organizations), the American Wheelchair Bowling Association (AWBA), National Amputee Golf Association (NAGA), United States Quad Rugby Association (USQRA), and the Handicapped Scuba Association (HSA). Internationally, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) was created in 1989 as a nonprofit organization, headquartered in Bonn, Germany, to organize the summer and winter Paralympic games, promote the Paralympic values, and encourage participation in disabled sports from the beginner to the elite level. It also acts as the international federation for nine sports and oversees worldwide championships in these sports. It recognizes four additional International Organizations of Sports for the Disabled (IOSDs) including the Cerebral Palsy International Sports and Recreation Association (CPISRA), the International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA), the International Sports Federation for Persons with an Intellectual Disability (INAS), and the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation (IWAS). The awareness of and appreciation for disabled athletes was especially evident in the 2012 Paralympic Games held in London. There were 4,237 athletes present from 164 countries who participated in a total of 503 events in 20 sports. During this event, 251 world records and 314 Paralympic records were set. There was a record 2.7 million spectators and millions more who watched the televised events or accessed the events through the Internet. Surveys of the British noted a significant positive change in attitude toward athletes with disabilities and disabled sports.

While the history of sports for the DA can be traced back a century, the development of junior-level activities and competition can be measured only in a few short decades. The NWAA created a junior division in the early 1980s that encompassed children and adolescents from 6 to 18 years of age. It has since established the annual Junior Wheelchair Nationals. Junior-level participation and programming have been adopted by many other organizations, including the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA), DS/USA, and American Athletic Association of the Deaf (AAAD). Sports for youth with disabilities are increasingly available in many communities through Adapted Physical Education (APE) programs in schools, inclusion programs in Scouting, Little League baseball, and others.

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