Michael Atkins played several sports before an accident in 1988 put him in a wheelchair.
Today, he participates in wheelchair basketball and has participated in other sports — even water skiing.
Living with a disability doesn’t have to limit you, he told students Wednesday when the Durham nonprofit Bridge II Sports visited Rashkis Elementary School.
“The only difference between me and you guys is I’m just a little bit shorter,” Atkins said. “And I gotta use this chair to get around.”
Bridge II Sports began working with third graders at Rashkis three years ago because that class had a boy who played wheelchair basketball. It expanded to all the grades this year.
The Chapel Hill-Carrbro City Schools has two adapated physical education teachers who help integrate students with disabilities into PE classes or find other options in the community for them.
They work with about 120 students. Many have autism, followed by students with physical and emotional disabilities, said teacher Roberto Aponte. They take several children with multiple disabilities to a heated pool at Duke once a week where the hot water helps to relax them, he said.
Aponte has seen the benefits of able-bodied kids playing alongside classmates with disabilities.
“They’re so supportive,” he said. “They’ll run with them. They’ll walk with them. They’ll pass the ball.”
On Wednesday, students entered the Rashkis gym one grade at a time. They took turns playing sit volleyball (just like it sounds) and shooting hoops from one of the 20 multi-sport wheelchairs Bridge II Sports brought to the school.
The gym echoed with screams and shouts as children spun their wheels after loose balls and drove to the basket, balls tucked beneath their chins.
“It’s hard to shoot,” said Parker Canterbury, 8.
But, “it’s kind of fun.”
PE teacher Michelle Wood said the schools do a better job of integrating students with disabilities than when she started teaching 23 years ago.
With PE specialists and events like Bridge II Sports’ visit, “we’re hoping (students) see even if somebody has a disability they can still participate in sports,” she said.
And maybe learn a little compassion, she added.
‘Just as athletic’
Bridge II Sports founder Ashley Thomas believes the lessons last long after her folks pack up.
The 54-year-old mother of three was born with spina bifida (literally “split spine”) and uses a wheelchair. She competes in parakayaking.
It’s important for able-bodied people and people with disabilities to come together, and for children to see those who are blind or who use wheelchairs compete.
“They recognize what we’re doing is difficult and it takes skills, and that if you’re good at it’s just as athletic,” Thomas said.
Afterward, “There’s a very subtle shift in what our expectations are for people with disabilities,” she said. “‘Oh, you can play basketball.’ ‘Oh, you can get a job.’ ‘I will interview you for a job 20 years from now.’”
Have no fear
Atkins lined the children up on the gym floor after basketball for a little talk.
“Not as easy as it looks,” he told a group of second-graders. “We actually lowered the goal.”
Atkins likes talking with the youngest kids the most.
They have no fear and will ask why he’s in a chair. Some will even poke him in the leg and ask, “Can you feel this? Can you feel this?”
He learns things too.
Like the day he brought four wheelchairs, including his own, to class and told the students they would have to share, taking turns in the chairs.
One kid got mad at him, and Atkins couldn’t figure out why until the child told him it was because Atkins wasn’t sharing his own chair.
So he got out of the chair and let the children try it.
“Kids get a lot more than we think they do,” he said.