We all know how important staying active is for mental and physical health, and fortunately, numerous sports challenge humans to push their limits, whether it’s alone or on a team.
Since the 1940s, wheelchair sports have opened the doors to exercise and competition for the disabled population, with redesigned equipment that makes it possible for anyone to partake in the fun. In this post, we share a list of these adaptive sports!
Adaptive Sports Overview
Sports for disabled adults began after WWII when US war veterans in wheelchairs started to play basketball together on hospital grounds.
Since then, the possibilities of what one can do in a chair branched out to other sports, and in 1957 the National Wheelchair Games made its debut.
Today, wheelchair sports activities draw thousands on a global scale, and in this post, we share a list of 20 wheelchair sports that might just inspire you to get out there and find a new passion!
The cardiovascular benefits of cycling are well known, but it also allows you to mentally decompress in calming nature and socialize with others who enjoy cycling, too.
This adaptive sport is versatile, meaning it’s a multi-disability sport. That’s because the rider can easily adapt the cycles – there’s no shortage of creativity to customize a bike.
One of the most significant cycle innovations is the handcycle, which was designed 15 years ago.
This type of three-wheeled cycle gives individuals with lower extremity impairment the ability to propel their bodies using their arms. It comes in multiple sizes, is easy to use, and it’s fast for racing.
The handcycle has become one of the most popular forms of adaptive cycling in recent years for serious athletes and recreational users.
The technology of this cycle has become so advanced that professional handcycle riders can almost match the speed of able-bodied cyclists.
Adaptive golf was made a reality after some serious equipment tweaks, including shorter shafts and oversized grips on the clubs.
But that’s not all…
Single-rider chairs, a specific type of all-terrain powerchair, feature innovative technology that actually lifts the golfer into a standing position, allowing for enhanced movement and a more functional swing.
Advancements like the single-rider make it possible for anyone with mobility limitations to play golf, with added conveniences if needed, such as a joystick and luggage bin.
3. Horseback Riding
The healing benefits of horseback riding, also referred to as equine-assisted therapy, therapeutic riding, or hippotherapy, have been recognized since 1946
It shot to fame when a rider, Liz Hartel from Denmark, began horse therapy after becoming paralyzed from polio. She was able to regain the use of her legs and ended up winning a silver medal in the 1952 Olympic Games for dressage.
Even if you are not able to mount the horse or use your legs to direct the horse, the beauty of this sport is that the horse intuitively learns how to move according to the rider’s unique strengths.
Special equipment is utilized, such as a mounting block or ramp for wheelchairs, and some saddles provide ample support with side guards and high backs.
Adaptive water sports make it possible for those in wheelchairs to get that physical and spiritual fix while improving balance and coordination.
Kayaking and canoeing are two activities that can be enjoyed, with adjustments made to the equipment that range from simple to complex, depending on the paddler’s needs.
Paddleboards are fitted with outriggers to mimic the design of Southeast Asian boats and may feature an all-terrain surf chair, standup board, or a ramp to roll the wheelchair onto the board.
The outriggers create more stability that allows the user to skim the surface of the water with ease. They can also be removed once a paddler becomes accustomed to balancing on the board.
5. Sitting Volleyball
Sitting volleyball doesn’t require wheelchairs or equipment. Instead, the players are seated on the floor of the court and must keep one buttock in contact with the floor at all times during the game.
This adaptive sport was invented in the Netherlands in 1956 for injured soldiers to stay active, combining volleyball and German sitzball, which is where the sitting rule comes from.
Sitting volleyball became part of the Paralympic wheelchair sports in 1980.
6. Snow Skiing
Adaptive snow sports like skiing give people in wheelchairs the chance to immerse themselves in nature and stay physically active during the snowy winter months when wheelchairs aren’t recommended for outdoor use.
The concept is the same as conventional skiing, except the equipment is redesigned according to different skiing styles.
Sit-skis are utilized by those in wheelchairs, featuring two skis or one ski for stability and poles for direction.
Adaptive skiing isn’t new, having been around since the 1940s. It was welcomed as a Paralympic sport in 1992, with athletes participating in downhill skiing, slalom, giant slalom, and Super-G events.
Being in the water releases pressure on the feet and knees, giving wheelchair users a wider range of motion and freedom.
This makes swimming another versatile sport that anyone, no matter their disability, can enjoy. It engages all body parts for a full-body, low-impact workout.
Despite the numerous benefits swimming offers for wheelchair users, public pools were off-limits to the disabled for years. In 2010, that regulation was thrown out, and now public pools must have entry and exit apparatus for those with limited mobility.
Brad Parks is considered the creator of competitive wheelchair tennis, putting the spotlight on the sport in 1976. The first wheelchair tennis program was enacted in France, and it quickly grew in popularity around the world.
Wheelchair tennis was added to wheelchair sports Paralympics in 1988.
Note that this is one form of adaptive tennis, with the biggest difference being that specialized wheelchairs are used on the court. This makes it an ideal option for those who want to play electric wheelchair sports.
9. Wheelchair Basketball
Wheelchair basketball is played by more than 100,000 people in the world, and that number is increasing every year, ever since those WWII vets started tossing a ball back and forth on the court of their hospital in the 1940s.
The only difference in equipment is that players utilize sports wheelchairs on the court. Other than that, anyone can take part in the action.
The Paralympics recognizes the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF) as the governing body of the sport, and there are now 95 national organizations participating under the IWBF.
Bocce ball is an ancient game that has been around since Roman times. It’s a competitive game that is played professionally in France, Italy, and Spain while enjoyed recreationally throughout the world.
It consists of two or more players who each toss balls on a natural sand court intending to land the ball close to the jack.
This game is especially adaptive for electric wheelchair users since no speed, sharp maneuverability, or precision is required. Wheelchair users play on a smooth-surfaced indoor court and have a shorter range to throw.
Bocce was added to the Paralympics in 1984 and is one of two sports without a counterpart in the Olympics.
Bowling is a sport that is easily adaptable for wheelchairs, hence the reason why it’s a favorite amongst users.
The American Wheelchair Bowling Association was started in 1962 by Richard F. Carlson. He is credited with establishing the first National Wheelchair Bowling Tournament in Louisville.
Today, the association boasts over 500 members, and that number doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
Without the need for speed or quick maneuvering, advanced wheelchair users can enjoy bowling without modified gear.
However, special bowling equipment is available for a wide range of levels and disabilities. Anyone can bowl and have a blast!
Here is the most common equipment:
- Ball ramp: This lightweight, aluminum ramp increases the amount of control a bowler has over the ball, allowing them to release it from their lap. This is helpful for people with a limited range of motion.
- Grip handle ball: This is a specially designed bowling ball that gives the bowler a stronger grip and enhanced control. The ball features a spring-loaded handle attached to the ball instead of finger holes. The bowler uses the handle to bowl the ball, and once released, the handle retracts into the ball.
- Bowling ball pusher: This is a simple tool that looks like a stick with a double prong at the end. The bowler can use it to improve control over the ball’s direction by cradling the ball with the forked end and using the grip to push.
Sir Ludwig Guttman, a German-British neurologist, is credited with developing wheelchair fencing. He is also the founder of the Paralympic games.
Wheelchair fencing debuted in the first Paralympics in 1960 and has been part of the games ever since.
Originally, heavy wheelchairs called travaux chairs were used. Over the years, they were made lighter, with attached rails that keep the athlete stabilized on the piste.
Before this sport was deemed wheelchair rugby, it was known as “murderball.” It’s governed by the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation (now World Wheelchair Rugby), established in 1993.
This sport is challenging and intense but is beloved in over 25 countries. It’s also featured in the Paralympic Games.
Unlike conventional rugby, which is played outdoors on a field, wheelchair rugby is played indoors on a hardwood court. In the US, players must have some loss of mobility in at least three limbs. This includes amputations, spinal cord injuries, and neurological disorders.
In the late 1980s, the International Handicap Sailing Committee was formed. Later on, the name would change to the International Foundation for Disabled Sailing (IFDS), but the mission remained the same: to adapt speed sailing for anyone to partake, no matter the level of disability.
Participants use the wind in their sails and quick problem solving to propel their vessels as fast as possible over the water.
The speed of each boat is recorded by regulators, and points are calculated based on speed. The participant with the lowest point count is the winner.
Speed sailing has been part of the Paralympics since 2000. Competitions are held across the globe, with three main events for wheelchair users: single-person keelboat, two-person keelboat, and three-person keelboat.
If you’ve ever dreamed of exploring the vibrant world beneath the surface of the ocean, but thought it’s not possible- think again.
Thanks to artist Sue Austin, the development of a wheelchair for scuba diving was made a reality with the help of dive experts, and she debuted her underwater machine at the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.
The underwater wheelchair features a fin for steering and a foot-operated acrylic strip. Two dive propulsion mechanisms power the chair forward.
Wheelchair softball is different from conventional softball in that it is played on a smaller, hard surface court to make it easier to roll from base to base.
Manual wheelchairs are used, and the players must touch each base with their wheels. For quadriplegics, bats are adapted to their needs to make it easier to grip and bunt the ball.
Wheelchair softball began in 1976 and is governed by the National Wheelchair Softball Association.
17. Water skiing
Sit skis for water make it possible for athletes with disabilities who can’t stand up to enjoy water skiing. The skier sits in a cage or on a seat, which is fastened to the top of the ski.
This innovative ski was designed by Royce Andes in 1983, who had been paralyzed from a barefooting accident in 1982. He drew the design with a pen that he held with his mouth!
Andes’s accident didn’t stop him from continuing his passion, and today many wheelchair users benefit from the joys of skiing thanks to his determination and innovation.
This is a wonderful sport for wheelchair users that requires very little adaptation. The rules are simple and are the same as conventional archery: use a bow and arrow to hit a target at a specified distance.
While equipment adaptations aren’t necessary, some do exist for those who need modifications. This can include a mechanical bow release, strapping for extra support, sighting aids, and mouth tabs for those with limited arm mobility.
Wheelchair archery is part of the Paralympics and is divided into four categories, based on the amount of mobility the athlete has in their upper or lower body.
If you’re into wheelchair extreme sports, snowboarding is another healthy sport that allows wheelchair users to get outside more during the isolating winter months.
There are four main types of boards:
- Freestyle/twin tip: This board has a tail and tip that turn upwards, making it easy for beginners to move in either direction.
- Freeriding/directional: This board is stiffer than the freestyle, but offers more versatility for advanced riders.
- Alpine/race: This advanced design features a narrow midsection and a tip that is more upturned than the tail, which is effective for deep carving and quick responsiveness.
- Mono-board: This board allows the rider to sit and use ski poles for balance, or outriggers for stability.
For low-impact relaxation, wheelchair yoga teaches participants how to stretch and strengthen their upper bodies to reduce stiffness and facilitate blood circulation.
Slow movements are also wonderful for calming the mind, reducing anxiety, and increasing focus.
If you’re interested in trying wheelchair yoga, it’s a good idea to consult with your doctor first to ensure your wellbeing and an overall positive experience.
Final Thoughts: Wheelchair Sports
We hope you enjoyed our wheelchair sports list! The growing popularity of these sports enables people with disabilities to enrich their lives through exercise and competition and proves that there are no limits to what can be achieved by anyone.
Through technological innovations and the will of wheelchair users who wanted to pursue their passions, many adaptive sports organizations we see today were founded by determined individuals who strove to change the world for the disabled.
Resources & References:
- Adaptive Sports Organizations, challangedathletes.org
- International Paralympic Committee, paralympic.org