New sports program aims to boost inclusion of people with physical disabilities in Houston

Doug Garner recently retired from a nearly 30-year wheelchair basketball coaching career that began shortly after his son was born in 1986 with spina bifida, a birth defect of the spinal cord. .

“When you’re a parent, you worry about so many things for your child,” Garner said. “When they have a disability, you wonder if they will have friends and what their life will be like.”

The family lived in Arkansas at the time, where there were few resources and no sports teams for people with disabilities. So he created a junior team in 1992 with eight children. They started playing games in 1994 and won national championships in 1996 and 1999, he told fans who turned out for the Harris County Sports Authority’s first day of adaptive sports on Saturday morning.

“Not all disabilities are the same,” said Garner, who was inducted into the National Wheelchair Basketball Association Hall of Fame in 2019. “There should be an opportunity for everyone.”

This is the first event in a new program called Abilities in Motion, created to introduce youth and adults with physical disabilities to sports that have been made more accessible. Abilities in Motion was launched two weeks ago in partnership with TIRR Memorial Hermann and is funded by the Sports Authority Foundation.

The foundation was created after Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, leaving people with physical disabilities with even fewer options for activities.

“We saw a need, so we first started the foundation for it. It now lives with other community initiatives that we run,” said Meredith Pardue, senior manager of athlete affairs and accommodations at Harris County Houston Sports Authority.

Throughout Saturday’s event, attendees could play adaptive sports including recumbent cycling, wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball and inclusive pickleball.

“We felt it was very important to launch a program that is fundamentally based on giving back to young people and adults with physical disabilities and providing them with athletic opportunities,” Pardue said. “That’s where this whole Abilities in Motion program started.”

Pardue said the organization plans to expand these programs to school districts to educate teachers, coaches and athletic directors to be more inclusive.

“Our mission is to make sure they have the same opportunities in sport as able-bodied kids and are included in every major event we run,” she said.

Darlene Hunter reminds young people that the opportunities available to them today have not always existed and how important it is to give back.

“You have the advocacy of everyone who came before me and started this; I just keep going,” Hunter said.

Born able-bodied, Hunter suffered a traumatic accident at age 4 that left her with a spinal cord injury.

“Everybody loves sports… Unfortunately, I grew up in a place where they didn’t allow me to do that in our school system,” Hunter said.

Today, she is a three-time Paralympian in women’s wheelchair basketball with a gold and a bronze medal. Currently, she is a professor at the University of Texas at the Arlington School of Social Work.

“You have a responsibility to leave the game better than you found it,” she continued. “You can’t just take the opportunity to play any sport, you also have to give back and make it better for others.”

Ryan H. Bowman