Back to Articles July 27, 2021 | Disability Disability Sport

Celebrating Australian Para-Athletes and the History of Accessible Sport

People with a disability receive the same physical, mental, and social benefits from participating in sport and physical activity as those not having a disability. Finding an accessible sport can be a game-changer in the lives of persons with a disability. It can help them to live a more independent and healthier lifestyle. We are going to take a look at the history of sport for the disabled and some inspirational Aussie Athletes.

HISTORY

WWII was a catalyst for the development of accessible activities for people with disabilities. Due to the great number of injuries sustained during the War, one man, Ludwig Guttmann sought to provide those who had suffered injuries with accessible activities to help rebuild self-esteem and restore self-dignity.

After fleeing Nazi Germany, Guttman, a Jewish Doctor, settled in Stoke, England, where he started a spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital.

Guttmann had a unique and controversial approach to treating disabled patients at the time. He encouraged his patients in his new ward to become active by participating in craft and sporting activities. He got his patients to take part in athletic sports like Javelin, Discus and Shot-put.

Guttman would organise competitions for his patients giving them goals to aspire to. The first competition to gain public attention was a Wheelchair Archery demonstration featuring 14 men and 2 women held in the yard of the hospital. The event proved to be very popular, so Guttman would continue organising events annually for persons with disability to participate. Before long, disabled athletes from mainland Europe were travelling to Stoke to compete.

Guttman said one of the most important aspects of accessible sport was the ‘social reintegration of the paralysed into society.’ This point has had a lasting impact on not only the disabled population but the entire world and its perception of people with disability.

Ludwig Guttmann

Dr Ludwig Guttmann – Credit National Paralympic Heritage Trust

The first-ever Paralympics in Rome 1960 was a result of Guttmann’s endeavours and featured 400 athletes from 23 countries competing in eight sports:

  • Archery
  • Athletics
  • Dartchery (combination of Archery and Darts)
  • Snooker
  • Swimming
  • Table Tennis
  • Wheelchair Basketball
  • Wheelchair Fencing.

Over the last 60 years, disability sport has expanded and reached all corners of the globe. Over 4000 athletes from 159 countries are set to take part in the year-delayed 2021 Tokyo Paralympics. 

Following the able-bodied Olympics in July, the Paralympics begin in August and consists of 22 sports including, disabled specific events such as:

  • Sitting Volleyball 
  • Goalball (visually impaired athletes attempt to roll a ball with two bells inside into the opposition net)
  • Boccia (combination of Bocce and Bowls).

ATHLETICS

Michael Roeger was born in Langhorne Creek, South Australia missing the lower part of his right arm. He was always active despite this and grew up playing Australian Rules Football, Basketball, Cricket and Table Tennis. One day, Australian Paralympian sprinter Neil Fuller gave a talk at Roeger’s high school about para-sport. He was inspired to give athletics a go and found his true calling as the star of his high school cross-country team. 

T46 is a disability sport classification for people who have a single below or above the elbow amputation. Roeger decided to compete as a T46 athlete at the state and national level before trying his luck at international events.

It was clear, early on that Roeger was a high-level runner and he quickly became one of the leading T46 runners in the world.

He has achieved three world records in his career so far in the 1500m, 5000m and marathon. Roeger is competing in Tokyo aiming to achieve his life goal of tasting Paralympic gold. 

 Michael Roeger Ⓒ Getty Images 

Michael Roeger Ⓒ Getty Images 

WHEELCHAIR RUGBY 

Originally called  ‘Murder Ball’, Wheelchair Rugby is a high-speed and physical Paralympic Sport. Wheelchair Rugby was designed in 1976 by five Canadian wheelchair athletes. They wanted to provide a more inclusive and accessible alternative to the, at the time, most popular wheelchair team sport, Wheelchair Basketball. Wheelchair Rugby allowed paraplegic athletes with a wide range of functional ability to play integral roles in a team, including those without upper limbs who would not be able to contribute effectively in Wheelchair Basketball.

Athletes play with a regulation Volleyball and attempt to carry the ball over an eight-meter-wide goal line at each end of a Basketball court. The game is balanced by assigning individual athletes a rating based on their limb and neurological function level. Teams have a limit on the number of high-functioning athletes with a limit of eight points in total from the four players on the court at any one time. Athletes with limited limb function are assigned one-two points while an advanced offensive player can be assigned five points. Only four players can be on the court at once.

The wheelchairs are designed to be sturdy and are adapted to different roles. Defensive wheelchairs have bigger bumpers and are larger to be more effective at blocking, while offensive chairs are shorter and lighter for improved mobility.

Wheelchair Rugby is one of the most attended and watched Paralympic sports. Its end to end nature makes it an exciting spectacle.

Australia first competed in Wheelchair Rugby in the 1982 Stoke Mandeville games when the Candian founders invited Australia to compete. The Australian team were given a limited introduction to the rules and skills of the game but came out on top. Ever since the sport has flourished in Australia. The national Wheelchair Rugby team, the Steelers, are considered the best in the world and are reigning two-time Paralympic gold medal holders. They are competing at Tokyo and will be looking to make it a three-peat of gold medals.

Australian Wheelchair Rugby Team celebrating their gold medals at London 2012

Australian Wheelchair Rugby Team celebrating their gold medals at London 2012 – Credit Getty Images: Mike Ehrmann

POWERCHAIR FOOTBALL

Powerchair Football is the fastest-growing disability sport in the world.

Powerchair Football is a modified version of Indoor Soccer for electric wheelchair users. It is a skill-based sport and is quite similar to able-bodied Football in terms of rules and strategy.  

Athletes include persons with multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, quadriplegia and other disabilities. The individual powerchairs are specially designed to cater to athlete’s disabilities and can be controlled by whatever means that they are capable.

The Poweroos are Australia’s national Powerchair Football team. The star of the team is Abdullah Karim. He was awarded the Worlds Most Valuable Player in 2017. Abdullah was born in Western Sydney with scoliosis and limb deficiency. He was told at a young age that the only chance he had of walking was to put his feet into plasters to try and re-align his bones. Abdullah’s Mother went against doctors’ advice and cut the plasters off because she did not want others making fun of the way he walked. She believed that Abdullah would be able to develop his skills with his feet. He is now able to control his chair completely through his feet as well as eat, type and play video games.

Australian Football Legend Rale Rasic has followed the Poweroos and Karim in his footballing journey. He describes Abdullah as a ‘unique player’ with a ‘brilliance in judgment at how he maneuvers his chair.’

The Poweroos finished fourth at the 2017 World Cup. Abdullah and his teammates are determined to improve on this finish and win in front of their home crowd at the 2022 Sydney Powerchair Football World Cup.

Abdullah Karim posing with his 2017 World MVP Trophy

Abdullah Karim posing with his 2017 World MVP Trophy. Credit – Football NSW

These inspirational athletes overcome great challenges not only in sport but in their everyday lives. All athletes including Abdullah display the Paralympic values of courage, determination, inspiration and equality, exciting the world in the process with the message of respect and equal opportunity for all individuals.

For more information on disability sport or how you or your loved one can get involved visit these websites:

Disability Sports Australia: https://www.sports.org.au/

Disability Sports Victoria: https://www.dsvic.org.au/

Disability Sport & Recreation: https://dsr.org.au/

Paralympics Australia: https://www.paralympic.org.au/

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