Modifying Wheelchair Softball To Be Inclusive
By Cliff Cook
As professionals who work in adapted sports and recreation, we strive to make our programs as accessible and inclusive as possible. By adapting programs and activities, we provide opportunities for people with disabilities to come as they are and participate fully. But people with disabilities are extremely diverse with varied abilities, desires and goals. Creating a quality program that is truly inclusive to all people can be a challenge, especially when implementing essential eligibility criteria (EEC) or prerequisites for participation.
EEC defines what functional thresholds all participants must possess in order to safely participate in a program. Prerequisites identify the skills, attributes or training necessary for participation. Both are used in all types of activities, not just adapted sports. This summer at Lakeshore Foundation we began establishing EEC and prerequisites in all of our adult recreation programs. First up in our planning process was wheelchair softball. We had many things to consider when deciding what kind of program we would offer, and we wanted to make sure our EEC and prerequisites did not create unnecessary exclusion.
The first step we took was to identify the target audience for this program. We analyzed the types of individuals who participate in our other programs to see who may have fewer participation opportunities. All of our adult recreation programs are sport based. Some of the programs are fully inclusive, while other programs like wheelchair rugby, wheelchair basketball and run/roll tennis have necessary prerequisites and EEC, which are bound by specific rules and equipment, and require a minimum level of functional ability to participate. Because many of our programs have a higher level of EEC and prerequisites, we decided to make our wheelchair softball EEC and prerequisites as minimal as possible. The goal was to create opportunity for any individual with or without a disability.
According to the official rules as defined by the National Wheelchair Softball Association, all players must play using a manual wheelchair with a foot platform. We concluded that this prerequisite would exclude the exact individuals we wanted to provide opportunity for participation, so we amended the rule to allow participants to use a manual or power wheelchair. We also addressed rules related to batting. We wanted to create the most successful environment for all players, so we allowed people to bat by hitting the ball off of a tee rather than being pitched to. This provided players with coordination impairments equal opportunity for success, and they were able to be key contributors on their teams.
Our wheelchair softball program was met with great success. We had 40 diverse players representing all levels of ability. Our hesitation in altering rules was met with compliments on how exciting it was to be part of a semi-competitive inclusive program. Batting, hitting and running in different ways elevated the competitiveness of the game and created a more enjoyable experience for all.
During the season one play perfectly illustrated our program’s success. A player approached the plate using his power wheelchair. He had difficulty holding a standard-size bat and hitting a ball out of the air, so in a quick and seamless moment, he grabbed a light-weight Nerf bat and focused his attention to a larger Nerf ball sitting on a tee. With a single swing he crushed the ball to the fence. As he ran the bases the bench erupted in cheers. The outfield sprinted for the ball and scrambled to make a play. It did not matter that we weren’t following official rules. We were all just playing softball.
Establishing essential eligibility criteria and perquisites for a program is never easy, and there is no one-size-fits-all blueprint for implementation. But including EEC and prerequisites in the planning process allows you to take a step back and place additional focus on your program goals, target audience and the overall variety of programs you offer. And that creates more quality programming for everyone.