Planning for Athletes With Special Needs: It's All in the Details | Sports Destination Management

Planning for Athletes With Special Needs: It's All in the Details

An Interview with Dan James, USTA's National Manager for Wheelchair Tennis

There are two kinds of sports event planners: those who have already planned events for athletes who use wheelchairs, and those who are long overdue. As society become increasingly inclusive, almost every sport has begun to offer adaptive programs at the local, state, national and international level.

While it's impossible to cover all those sports in one article, there are plenty of common denominators in accommodating athletes across the board. Dan James is the national manager for wheelchair tennis at the United States Tennis Association, and was involved in tennis at the Paralympics as head coach for the 2004 Athens Games, the 2008 Beijing Games, and the 2012 London Games. He has witnessed the growth of sports for athletes in wheelchairs, and the corresponding awareness on the part of planners of the needs of these athletes.

Sports Destination Management: Are there any misconceptions planners might face when they start putting together an event for athletes who use wheelchairs?

Dan James: I think a lot of facilities -- at least in tennis -- are very hesitant to hold events because they are afraid the wheelchairs will damage the surface of the facilities. What we have to keep telling them is that our entire wheelchair tour is played on all the surfaces, not just hard courts, but grass and clay. We're always telling people, 'Yes, your facility is eligible to host this, and yes, the surface will be safe; the chair will do no more damage than a shoe would.' If a Grand Slam tournament trusts the chairs, every facility should.

SDM: The Americans with Disabilities Act has mandated things like parking spaces and rest rooms for users with mobility restrictions. Beyond that, what should a planner be looking for in a facility that will host an event for athletes who use wheelchairs?

DJ: Flat-out, you should be looking for as much accessibility as possible. We ask whether the pathways to the courts are accessible, and whether the doorways to a building, or the gates in a fence are wide enough to get a wheelchair through. In tennis, the athlete has to change sides on the court. We're always looking to see if they can fit between the fence and the net post, or between the net posts if two courts are side by side. A lot of things have to be taken into consideration.

You should also be looking at the locker rooms and showers: are they accessible? A lot of times, it's the small things, not the big things, that matter to athletes. If the stall in a rest room is supposed to be accessible, a person should be able to get into the stall and close the door, and have all the space they need.

SDM: Are there special considerations that need to be observed for athletes in wheelchairs, depending upon their limitations?

Editor's note: According to the International Tennis Federation (ITF), two classifications of athletes are recognized in terms of wheelchair play: Open class (for players with lower body impairments, but no impairment of their hands and arms); and Quad class (athletes who have an impairment that affects their arms and legs, which limits their ability to handle the racquet and to move their wheelchair compared with Open class athletes).

DJ: Heat management is an issue. In the quad division, you have players who cannot sweat, so overheating becomes a huge problem. You need to always be aware that some athletes cannot be on the court as long as others, and you need to always be able to provide ice, shade and water. In particular, athletes whose injuries are newer may not be as aware of their own limitations.

SDM: Beyond what is present at the site, what else can a planner do?

DJ: It's amazing how many things you can do to accommodate people. You can rent accessible port-a-potties and hand-washing stations, for example, and you can put them close to where your athletes are playing.

SDM: Events for athletes in wheelchairs tend to draw spectators who also have mobility restrictions. Should more designated parking be provided for users of wheelchairs?

DJ: It would be wonderful to see someone cordon off a special area for parking for athletes and spectators who need that. It's not a requirement for hosting an event, but again, it would be one of those things you can do that shows you're accommodating people.

SDM: If an event draws spectators in wheelchairs, does it create a good opportunity to market the sport to people who might not play yet?

DJ: It depends on the event. When we're putting on a juniors event, we ask the kids to bring their friends, and we teach them to play too. You can actually integrate the program so that you have competitive matches, but also a fun day. Wheelchair tennis is actually a very unique sport in that an able-bodied person can play against a person in a wheelchair. There are special rules for wheelchair tennis; the ball can bounce twice rather than once for the person in a wheelchair, but other than that, it's a very integrated sport. You don't have to have a full team of people in wheelchairs in order to play.

Just being able to get people out to learn to play is important. Playing sports has a social value, and our biggest goal is getting people to try the sport and see what it's like. There are benefits for everyone. I tell people, 'I don't care if you're sitting or standing, I want you in my program.'


Finding the Players and Spectators
Looking for potential athletes who use wheelchairs, and perhaps spectators who may find them particularly inspiring? The USTA's Wheelchair Tennis Grassroots Guide (available as a free download at offers suggestions for places to market a sports event or program.

While these days, privacy concerns may preclude many organizations from giving out the names and contact information of individuals who use wheelchairs, the same organizations may be willing to allow your event to put up flyers or posters. If they have a list-serv, it may be possible for you to have information about your event blasted out.

The media also may also be able to help. Send out press releases (and follow up with phone calls) to local newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations.

You can also reach out to veterans groups, including those specifically addressing the needs of recently returned soldiers who have suffered injuries, such as the Wounded Warrior Project.

Don't overlook social media -- but don't rely on it to the exclusion of reaching out to other channels, including the following:

V.A. Hospitals:  contact the director of rehab services, or the director of physical therapy

Rehabilitation Hospitals: Contact person - Director of recreation, Therapeutic recreation specialist

Shriners Hospitals for Children: Contact person - Child life director

Physical Therapists/Occupational Therapists

Wheelchair Dealers and Durable Medical Supply Companies

Disabled Sports Programs: Contact the directors of recreation at park and rec programs, YMCAs, community centers and more

Churches and Youth Groups

College Campuses: There may be a Disabled Students Program, or the Student Affairs office may be able to distribute information

Schools: Many have adaptive physical education departments who can pass along information

Amputee Centers

Paralyzed Veterans of America

Outpatient Clinics:  Contact person - Director of physical therapy, or similar

Support Groups:  Check for those who address individuals with challenges such as spina bifida, spinal cord injuries or those who are amputees

Fitness Centers:  Many facilities offer personal trainers, and those may already work with individuals with mobility limitations, and can talk up your program. In addition, some fitness centers have integrated physical therapy practices

Centers for Independent Living:  Contact person - center director