I recently had the privilege of participating in Bridge the Gap at UNC-Chapel Hill, a basketball tournament played by students in sports chairs to raise awareness and funds for Bridge II Sports.
Bridge II Sports is a local 501(c)(3) organization that creates opportunities for physically challenged children and adults to play team and individual sports. The organization grew out of my journey living with spina bifida and chronic pain, and the self-esteem, joy, hope and community that I discovered through sports.
During the Bridge the Gap tournament, which was organized by UNC students, several people asked me about the importance of facilitating inclusive sports (i.e., games that promote the inclusion of people with disabilities and marginalized individuals or groups). I responded that sports programs that bring disabled and able-bodied participants together are valuable for many reasons. First and foremost, inclusive sports ensure a safe and fair playing field for all, as everyone must play with the same form of adapted equipment to prevent accidents and injury.
However the value of inclusive sports goes far beyond safety and fair play. If all players use a sports chair in a basketball tournament, or if all team members wear blackout goggles while playing Goal Ball, a sport for people who are blind or have low vision, all participants truly engage with each other and create an environment of compassion, encouragement, mutual respect and inclusivity.
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As I have discovered, individuals with disabilities find hope through inclusive sports and a community that understands at least some part of their journey living with a disability. Participants can accept their limitation while at the same time find that they can still accomplish things and have fun in other ways. Inclusive games allow all players to experience some of the great lessons of sports: sportsmanship, teamwork and self-confidence. Respect, acceptance, friendship and empowerment spread among team members when playing on an equal playing field.
Bridge II Sports runs 12 year-round programs and five major sporting events serving people with different types of disabilities. Our annual Valor Games Southeast competition draws over 115 military persons who compete in 10 types of adapted sports. Bridge II Sports is also advocating for policy change within our state; our efforts helped pass recent legislation (SB314) that provides for schools across North Carolina to introduce inclusive sports into their curriculum. Our ultimate goal is to create a state-wide adapted sports college program.
Bridge II Sports charges nominal fees for participation in our programs because many families do not have extra money for sports, due to the high costs of taking care of the family member who has a disability. Yet a fundamental goal of the organization is to become financially self-sustaining. We have won grants for equipment and program costs, but there is still more work to be done. Please consider joining Bridge II Sports as a supporter to help us raise awareness and funds for athletes who find so much joy and hope through participation in our programs.
Editor’s note: This column is part of a year-long series by people with disabilities in our community. Tell us what you think about these columns at email@example.com. Please indicate whether you want your comments forwarded to the writer and/or considered for publication. Thank you.
About Ashley Thomas
Ashley Thomas is the founder and executive director of Bridge II Sports. She is a mother of three grown children, has represented the U.S. as a member of the USA ParaKayak Team, and she is a passionate advocate for access to physical recreation and sports for those with disabilities. Learn more about Bridge II Sports by visiting http://www.bridge2sports.org/.