Accessibility is a Team Sport: Partnership Helps Launch Learn to Wheel Program
It’s a unique team effort between four organizations: Parasport Nova Scotia, Easter Seals Nova Scotia, Basketball Nova Scotia and Halifax Regional Municipality Recreation.
“The goal is to give youth, of all abilities, a fun program to play games from a wheelchair and enjoy the benefits of being physically active,” says Paul Tingley, Parasport NS coordinator. “It’s all on the same night, all in the same facility,” says Tingley. “Kids will see other people doing different things, to give them an idea of what is possible. It’s really about learning the benefits of physical activity, and that the culture of parasport is cool. People are doing it, loving it, and having fun.”
The initiative has three parts that will eventually run the same night. The first hour, run by Easter Seals, is a fun-focused Learn to Wheel program aimed at teaching kids and youth aged 7-15 fundamental movements like propelling, stopping, turning, throwing, catching, and building physical strength.
Quickie Court youth wheelchairs are provided for participants. A Support4Sport grant allowed Basketball Nova Scotia to buy 14 new basketball wheelchairs. “That grant was a difference-maker,” Tingley says.
The program “fills a void” for kids who don’t always have that opportunity, says Easter Seals Nova Scotia president Joanne Bernard. And she’s hoping it will attract whole families. “We’re really hoping, if there’s a kid out there with a brother or sister who might be able-bodied, they’ll come too,” she says.
The second piece is a Junior NBA program for kids aged 5-12, run by HRM recreation staff, that introduces kids to wheelchair basketball basics. This is the first time the wheelchair edition of Junior NBA will be offered in Canada.
“It’s fun-first,” says Tingley. “We’re trying to make it a safe, fun place to get a workout. If people want to go down the pathway and start competing, they can do that too.”
The Junior NBA program will help introduce more young athletes to the game at an age-appropriate level, says Cher Smith, Nova Scotia’s provincial wheelchair basketball Canada Games coach. “If we look at the Long-Term Athlete Development model and trying to integrate people of all ages and abilities, trying to do that within one club has always been a challenge for us,” Smith says. “We’ve had 12-year-olds and 70-year-olds introduced to the sport at the same time. This is a more appropriate way of introducing those skills to (participants) at the same developmental stage.”
The third piece, which Smith aims to add soon, is a high-performance practice after the Junior NBA sessions, so youth can see what the next level looks like—and potentially become Canada Games prospects themselves. “We’re really hoping this acts as a feeder into (the Canada Games program),” Smith says. “Having this as a grassroots foundation will be fantastic.”
“I think the biggest thing we’re looking to do is create more awareness of wheelchair basketball in our province,” says Katherine Brien, executive director of Basketball Nova Scotia. “I think it’s a great program that really shows partnerships between multiple groups.”
That partnership was key in working out how to address logistics and remove barriers. Besides obtaining wheelchairs and equipment, the next challenge was finding an accessible facility that would also have space to store the chairs. That’s where HRM Rec recognized a gap exists and stepped up as the new St. Andrew’s centre was being completed.
“To me, that points to HRM recognizing the need for equity,” Tingley says. “Underrepresented groups need space to participate as well. This is really a game-changer in Halifax. If people want to do wheelchair skills, this will be the spot.”
The partnerships and grants have allowed the organizations to keep costs low for the program: $50 for the Easter Seals program and $51 for the Junior NBA. Both will run for eight weeks, starting April 12. All the partners emphasize the inclusive and integrated nature of wheelchair sport. It can be a great leveler between people of all abilities, says long-time wheelchair basketball player Ross Sampson.
“In a lot of ways, a wheelchair is a piece of equipment, like a bobsled or a bicycle,” says Sampson, who competed for Canada in the 1984 Paralympics and still plays with the Nova Scotia Flying Wheels. “Sport and recreation are important for everyone. The benefits of physical fitness and activity cross all boundaries.”
The partners are looking at this new venture as potentially the first step in expanding opportunities for accessible sport. Bernard is already thinking of where she’d like to see the program go next: heading out into other parts of the province.
“Kids in rural areas don’t always have access to inclusive sport programs,” she says. “It’s important that there’s that type of activity available for kids with disabilities. It lessens the isolation that (they) often feel, and it’s good for them physically.”
Brien has similar thoughts when she looks down the road. Now that Basketball Nova Scotia has a supply of chairs, she’d like to find opportunities to partner with schools and introduce the sport in physical education programs. Ultimately, she’d love to see a mobile program that can bring wheelchair basketball to every corner of Nova Scotia.
“The ideal scenario is we have a trailer full of wheelchairs and someone who can drive around the province and educate people on what wheelchair basketball is,” she says. “I think the hope for wheelchair basketball in the future is that we can use the tools available to us and expand the sport.”