Disabled services lacking on campuses

When the fans poured onto the court after my high school's (Tucson High) victory against rival high school
Salpointe in February 2004, I had no idea I would be in the position I am today. Because of the fans' extreme joy and excitement, I suffered a stroke after being pounced upon at the conclusion of the game. Due to that stroke and the disability that was caused by it, I've realized that many students with disabilities never get a chance to play a competitive sport like I did.

Before my stroke, I had no idea what a great town I grew up in for students with disabilities. My house was about a half-mile from the University of Arizona. When I went back to school at the UA after my stroke, I was introduced to the Disability Resource Center, or DRC, a multilevel building with amazing resources. It had physical therapists, counselors, and academic tutors and instead of a bike shop, it had its own wheelchair shop.

It also had athletic facilities for students with disabilities. The DRC had coaches, an athletic director, weights, ergonometers and gym equipment all adapted so people with disabilities could use them. Because of these excellent amenities, there was a regular crowd of students with disabilities coming in every day to work out, talk with their coaches and shoot the breeze.

For all I could tell, it was much like the school's regular recreation center. It had various adaptive athletic teams: men's and women's wheelchair basketball, quad rugby, wheelchair tennis, wheelchair track and road racing, weight training and conditioning and goalball.

"We had a lot of support from our community," assistant director of adaptive athletics Dave Herr-Cardillo said. "As we expanded our athletic programs past the men's basketball, the commitment of our administration really grew."

Arizona president Peter Likins and prominent Tucson automotive dealer Jim Click got involved. The university recruited athletes with disabilities from all over the country.

"The disabled athletes really seem to bring a new diversity to the university," Herr-Cardillo said.

Just like NCAA athletes and people of color, athletes with disabilities bring a new attitude to the university.

"President Likins in particular wasn't afraid of [the stigma attached to students with disabilities]," Herr-Cardillo said. "He was more interested in how it was adding to the campus community. He wasn't looking at it as a legal issue."

Click has helped raise money for the adaptive athletics program through personal donations and fund-raising events like Run 'N' Roll, which holds charity races for runners and wheelchair racers.

After spending a semester at the UA, I figured the time was right for me to head to Stanford. I arrived on campus with the highest expectations. I was correct in almost all aspects of student life. It's a beautiful campus with huge fields, luscious green woodlands, and architecture to write home about. Its professors were knowledgeable and creative; its administrators were informed; and its coaches were extremely educated about their sport of interest.

But Stanford's Office of Accessible Education -- its version of the DRC -- left something to be yearned for by the disabled community. There were no adaptive athletic teams or recreation equipment for people with disabilities. As I settled in at Stanford, I noticed there weren't many students in wheelchairs.

I soon realized that my experience at Arizona was exceptional. Around the nation, few universities -- even elite ones -- have adaptive athletic programs and resources for students with disabilities like Arizona does. The number of colleges with adaptive athletic programs is minuscule.

Why is that?

"It is really a question of commitment to accept a strong, unorthodox athletic program," Herr-Cardillo said. "This isn't a rehab thing, it's a competitive sport. [Elsewhere] there is too much sympathy and not enough understanding."

Since none of the adaptive athletic teams are NCAA-sanctioned, they all have to figure out ways to fund themselves. At the University of Texas at Arlington, adaptive athletics receives about $90,000 per year from student fees. At Arizona, which spends $150,000-$200,000 per year, the adaptive athletic teams rely mainly on private donations.

Eventually, Herr-Cardillo believes the issue of adaptive athletics will be decided by the courts. He believes adaptive athletics are mandated services, but he knows many people disagree.

I believe that competitive athletes -- with and without disabilities -- should be represented on the NCAA-sanctioned level. Until that happens, we can go on thinking that we offer the highest sports competition in our country. However, there will always be a huge elephant in the room until the pitying of people with disabilities ends and the offering of meaningful recreational and athletic opportunities at the university level begins.