California’s adaptive sports programs continue to grow at the high school and college levels. Changes are especially positive for youth who aspire to college-level adapted athletics or simply want to follow an exceptional adapted team. In November of 2016, CIF (California Interscholastic Federation) created an inclusive division for high school athletes with disabilities. CIF currently offers state championship events in Paralympic swimming and Paralympic track and field, giving more students the life-changing opportunity to compete. However, those opportunities tend to disappear after graduation. Until recently, local athletes struggled to find college-level adaptive sports near home. That’s changing as universities commit to growing adapted sports offerings.

San Diego State University (SDSU) launched California’s first official program in February and UCLA will be close behind. “We just want to provide access to sports,” says SDSU Adapted Athletics Director Ahkeel Whitehead. “Whatever level you’re at, there’s an opportunity.”

Here’s a sneak peek at SDSU’s program on the rise, plus a closer look at the nation’s top colleges for adaptive athletes.

San Diego State University

Born from a student organization, SDSU Adapted Athletics entered the college sports scene this year, offering wheelchair tennis and the nation’s only college ambulatory track team. As the program continues to grow, Whitehead hopes to expand with wheelchair basketball and aquatics.

According to Whitehead, there are 500–1,000 California high school athletes looking for adaptive college programs each year. “I was one of those athletes,” he says. “My best friends were going to Brown and Stanford for football, and I thought, maybe there’s a scholarship for me.” At the time, there wasn’t. Whitehead, a Paralympic track athlete, trained at South Bay’s Olympic training facility (now the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center) while commuting to SDSU. It was the best available option to achieve both his educational and athletic goals. Now, thanks to his leadership, more Aztecs than ever can represent their university as student-athletes. Follow the program on Facebook: @SDSUAdaptedAthletics.

University of Alabama

The UA wheelchair basketball program had a stunning season. The women’s team won their sixth National Championship and the men’s team won their third. Alabama’s wheelchair tennis players are five-time national champions and their wheelchair track team is competing in its first season.

“We recently opened a $10 million facility devoted completely to adapted athletics,” says program director Brent Hardin, Ph.D. “The facility features an arena, locker rooms, weight training, sports medicine, meeting rooms, offices and student lounge areas.” Follow the program on Twitter and Facebook: @AlabamaAdapted.

University of Arizona

U of A Adaptive Athletics takes pride in the breadth of its offerings. Sports include wheelchair basketball, wheelchair rugby, wheelchair track and roadracing, handcycling and wheelchair tennis. New this year is an adaptive golf team—the first of its kind in the U.S. According to Adaptive Athletics Director Peter Hughes, the university hopes to offer swimming and triathlon in the near future.

“Our goal is to support any student, regardless of disability, in getting an education while chasing their athletic goals,” says Hughes. The program offers summer wheelchair basketball camps for ages 12–23. Follow on Twitter: @ArizonaAdaptive and Facebook: @AZAdaptiveAthletics.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

A leader in wheelchair sports for 70 years, the Illinois Wheelchair Athletics program includes wheelchair basketball and wheelchair track. According to a written statement from the Office of Campus Life, “Illinois student-athletes have participated in every Paralympic Games since the inaugural event held in Rome in 1960. In terms of resources, Illinois has the most experienced cadre of coaches, administrators and ancillary support personnel in wheelchair athletics.” The program offers summer wheelchair sports camps for high school athletes and clinics for coaches. Their goal is to develop and improve adapted sports programs throughout the country. Follow on Facebook: @IllinoisWheelchairAthletics.

Interested in checking out more Adapted Athletic Programs? Here are colleges with notable programs:
Edinboro University (Edinboro, PA)
Oklahoma State
Penn State
University of Central Oklahoma
University of Missouri
University of Oregon
University of Texas at Arlington
University of Wisconsin at Whitewater

Anne Malinoski is a contributing writer and mother of two boys. Her older brother has special needs.

Read about three local kids who are thriving in adaptive wheelchair sports, in Flourishing Families 2019