Disability does not equal Inability
U-M program brings adaptive sports and fitness to the campus community and beyond
By Madeline Swanson | Photos by Marc-Grégor Campredon
Under the bright white glow of the arena lights, an enthusiastic group of student-athletes gathered on the basketball court at Crisler Center. The energy was high, with jokes, high-fives, and even some friendly jabs being exchanged between players. Then, one short burst of the whistle, and the intrasquad wheelchair basketball game was underway.
Members of the team are part of the University of Michigan’s Adaptive Sports & Fitness (ASF) program, which works to destigmatize disability and increase participation in adaptive sports and fitness among people with—and without—disabilities. Since 2018, ASF has promoted and provided access to competitive or recreational sports and fitness activities that anyone can enjoy, bringing these programs to U-M and the greater Ann Arbor community with the help of donor support.
But before there was a wheelchair basketball team, or any para sports teams for that matter, ASF was merely a program informally run by students, like wheelchair tennis and wheelchair basketball player Alex Saleh (MSW ’21), wheelchair tennis player Caiden Baxter (LSA Class of 2023), and Oluwaferanmi Okanlami (MD ’11), affectionately known as “Dr. O.” Okanlami is an assistant professor of family medicine, physical medicine and rehabilitation, and urology; the director of Student Accessibility and Accommodation Services; and founder and director of ASF. Today, Okanlami’s team and their partners have grown the program from hosting drop-in games on campus to offering four competitive sports: wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis, track and field, and para equestrian.
“I think too often when people hear disability, they think that it means inability,” Okanlami said. “A student that needs accommodations is no less intelligent, capable, or qualified—but we all need different resources. Accommodations are merely providing people with what they need to have equitable access.”
Hailing from Nigeria, Okanlami was an Academic All-American track and field athlete at Stanford University. But, during his orthopedic surgery residency at Yale, a diving accident left him paralyzed from the chest down, forever changing his life and the ways in which he could participate in athletics and physical fitness.
It was in rehabilitation that Okanlami discovered adaptive sports, which use modifications of rules or equipment that allow for equitable participation in sport by people with disabilities. While some adaptive sports are variations of existing able-bodied sports, like wheelchair basketball and wheelchair tennis, others do not have an able-bodied equivalent activity, such as goalball.
‘If you can sit, you can play’
Since then, he has become a staunch advocate for students with disabilities, with a mission to make para sports accessible for all.
“Adaptive sports aren’t sports for people with disabilities—they’re sports for everyone,” Okanlami said.
Arriving back at U-M as a faculty member, Okanlami wanted to bring adaptive sports to more members of the university community and beyond. Building upon U-M’s world-class undergraduate and graduate programs, top-rated health system, and the support of the local Ann Arbor community, he saw the potential for a multifaceted adaptive sports and fitness program to thrive at Michigan.
And the program is doing just that.
“We believe that if you can sit, you can play,” Okanlami said.
Support for sport
With support from donors and the university, ASF became an official program within the Office of Student Life in 2020. Now, student-athletes like Baxter and track and field athlete Cathryn Gray (LSA Class of 2024) are representing U-M in para sports on a national level.
Baxter, who grew up playing baseball until experiencing a spinal cord injury (SCI) at age 15, was introduced to para sports through wheelchair tennis, a sport he had never played until arriving at U-M. After only one year playing recreationally, Baxter began competing with the wheelchair tennis team. In the university’s first-ever competition in wheelchair tennis, they placed second in the national championships.
“I’ll never forget it,” Baxter said. “It was the first time that the university had been represented in any wheelchair sports, and I got the opportunity to play in the championship match.”
Baxter, who was one of the inaugural athletes in ASF, is also a recipient of the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation Scholarship, which covers tuition support and supplemental funding to defray the costs of housing, supplies, mobility equipment, and more for students with SCIs.
Over the last decade, the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation has given to many areas of the university, helping students with SCIs overcome obstacles to earning a college degree. In 2020, they established the Craig H. Neilsen Visionary Prize, which was created to celebrate influential voices whose work is changing the world for people living with SCI. Okanlami received the $1 million award in October 2022 in recognition of his work to make the world more accessible for people experiencing SCI.
“Dr. Okanlami was an ideal recipient,” said Kym Eisner, executive director of the Neilsen Foundation. “He is dedicated to exploring new perspectives and represents an inspirational cross-section of academia, advocacy, sports/fitness, and active clinical practice.”
A family affair
From the student-athletes and their coaches, to the donors and staff supporting the program, those involved with ASF are like one big family. Nowhere is that more evident than through the holistic support of the Miller family.
Wolverines and supporters of U-M for generations, Alex and Marlene (AB ’68, TeachCert ’68) Miller, and their son Jeff Miller (AB ’98) established the Adam Miller Memorial Fund at U-M two decades ago in memory of their son and brother Adam (AB ’94, AM ’96). The fund provides enrichment assistance for University of Michigan students with hearing, visual, or mobility disabilities.
Now, their support of ASF and para athletes like Baxter and Gray is playing a critical role in bringing adaptive sports and fitness to the U-M and local communities. From funding equipment and apparel, to helping expand access to facilities through a partnership with the Disability Network Washtenaw Monroe Livingston (aka Disability Network), the Millers have helped the program grow.
“As soon as we heard about ASF, given Adam’s passion for Michigan sports accessibility, we saw this as a natural progression of his fund’s work and really allowing us to expand the program’s outreach,” Jeff Miller said.
Growing up in an athletic family with parents who were collegiate athletes, Gray never let cerebral palsy (the most commonly occuring motor disability in childhood) keep her from playing sports. Following in her parents’ footsteps, she explored dance, soccer, and more, but eventually discovered her passion for track and field.
And thanks to support from the Millers, the Masco Corporation, and others, she continued her family’s legacy by becoming a para athlete at Michigan. The first major donor to ASF, the Masco Corporation has made gifts funding scholarships, equipment purchases, and more.
“It’s really cool to be able to inspire more people with disabilities, especially women, to be involved in adaptive sports because it’s totally changed my life,” Gray said. “I’ve always had this mentality that it’s bigger than just me. The program’s small, but it has so much potential, and that’s really thanks to Dr. O and donors like Masco and the Millers.”
For Baxter, it’s not just the financial support, but also the emotional support, that’s so rewarding.
“It’s knowing that there’s people watching—that there’s people that care,” he said.
ASF for all
Recently, in partnership with the Ann Arbor Public Schools, Disability Network, and Michigan Health Endowment Fund, ASF launched the Adaptive Sports and Inclusive Recreation Initiative, which embeds adaptive sports and fitness curriculum into middle school physical education classes in Ann Arbor. As a former educator, Marlene Miller believes that teaching children at a young age that adaptive sports and fitness is for everyone can be a powerful lesson in inclusivity.
“This is the time to get the students, parents, and teachers comfortable with adaptive sports so that it’s just part of sports,” said Marlene, who is known around the program as the “grandmother” of ASF.
And in summer 2024, the first-annual Miller Open will be held at the U-M Track and Field Stadium. Created by Okanlami and ASF staff in honor of the Millers’ contributions to the program, the two-day event will be open to collegiate, high school, and youth participants.
“We’re trying to dismantle the ableism that exists in this world by providing equitable access, and we could absolutely lead the nation in this space,” Okanlami said. “By increasing access and opportunity for everyone, we’re specifically creating opportunity for those who would not have it otherwise.”