Wheelchair Basketball a Slam Dunk for Kids with Disabilities
A former Mott patient and wheelchair basketball athlete is helping bring the sport to a new generation of children with physical challenges through free clinics.
A crucial turning point for Daniel Ellman was the day his wheelchair became a tool to play one of his favorite sports.
Born with spina bifida, Ellman has used a wheelchair for mobility his entire life. Growing up, the avid sports fan often was unable to join team sports with his friends. But in high school, that changed, as he was able to play a competitive sport and experience being part of a team through a wheelchair basketball program based in suburban Detroit.
Today, Ellman, 34, is back on the court — this time as a coach for University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital’s new wheelchair basketball team.
“The years I spent playing wheelchair basketball were some of the best of my life,” says Ellman, who was treated at Mott as a child and is the editor of an internal U-M publication, Michigan Medicine Headlines. “I’m thankful to be able to give back to Mott, a place where I got such incredible care, and help give current patients the experience I had growing up. It’s a special feeling to make a difference in this way.”
“Sometimes having a disability can be very isolating,” he adds. “You sit out a lot of the time, and you’re different. When you participate in wheelchair basketball, you’re no longer different. You’re all part of a team and all have something in common.
“We are giving kids an opportunity they may not have had before and what they see other kids do all the time — the experience of being part of an athletic team.”
To kick off the program, Ellman is leading free wheelchair basketball clinics to help children build skills such as picking up a ball, dribbling, passing and shooting baskets from a wheelchair.
The next clinic will be from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 9, at Ann Arbor’s Peace Lutheran Church. It’s open to children in the community ages 5 to 18 who are unable to play basketball because of physical challenges and disabilities. Children are eligible to play regardless of whether they use a wheelchair every day.
Ellman hopes the kids can start playing competitive games next year.
Filling a gap
Mott recreational therapist Becky McVey says starting a wheelchair basketball team was a longtime dream among Mott physical medicine and rehabilitation therapists who noticed the need for more outside activities for their patients. Thanks to a donation covering equipment, space and other costs, Mott could make that dream a reality.
“There aren’t that many opportunities for these kids to play a sport the way their peers do,” McVey says. “We know there are huge social, emotional and physical benefits to being on an athletic team, especially for kids with disabilities. We are thrilled that we are finally able to fill this gap in the community.”
“We hope to offer more of these opportunities that help kids and their families focus on what they can do instead of what they can’t do.”
The basketball team is part of a greater effort by Mott to provide more recreational opportunities for children with special needs. Mott hosted an adaptive kayaking clinic this year, with plans to offer similar events for skiing and camping. Other adaptive events through the year include martial arts, bowling and tree climbing.
Wheelchair basketball is the first of the activities to offer a competitive athletic experience.
Ellman says the fall clinic — the first in the series — was a hit among the young participants and parents alike.
“The kids had smiles on their faces the entire time,” he says. “It’s amazing to see how much fun they have weaving in between cones and feeling an independence they never had before. When you give kids the opportunity to use their chair to play a sport and have fun, it’s eye-opening for them and also for their parents, who get to interact with their kids in a different way and see their kids in a different light.”
That was the case for Dorothy Ashley as she watched her 10-year-old son, Zach, dribble and shoot baskets while zipping across the basketball court in his wheelchair.
Born three months early at just over 2 pounds, he developed cerebral palsy at birth. It affects muscle control and movement in the now fourth graders’ legs. Through rehab treatment at Mott, he has gone from using a walker to crutches to being able to walk.
“We didn’t know what life was going to be like for him,” she says. “For him to be able to move that chair the way he does on the court and pick up the ball, it’s just awesome. It’s amazing as a parent to see your child do something you didn’t think he could do. Being able to come out and play and be part of a basketball team means everything to us. He’s over-the-top excited.”
Ellman has seen firsthand the difference it can make to be a part of a team.
“It’s a social outlet, an intellectual outlet and an athletic outlet,” he says. “All of that comes together to form this perfect opportunity for students with disabilities.
“I remember the huge impact wheelchair basketball had on the kids I played with in high school. They felt like they were a part of something and felt like they fit in, and that’s really important when you’re a kid.”
The next free kids’ clinic is from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 9. For more information, email Becky McVey at firstname.lastname@example.org.