Disability Drives Promise for Athletics in the Community

Posted on December 13th, 2011

By: Meaghan Kangas

A cold and rainy Saturday in November pushes people through the pair of double doors that lead into Warren’s Salvation Army’s corridor. Bulletin boards and pictures of recent charity events line the wide corridor walls. Coats and hockey equipment occupy a stretch of alcoves, while multipurpose classrooms checker the hallway. Positioned at the very end of the hall is an inviting cafeteria. Adjacent to the cafeteria, a pair of large open doors usher guests into the gym. As noon approaches, parents and children of all ages arrive and start settling themselves on the gym bleachers.

The few who volunteer get the supplies out of the utility closet and start to set up boundaries with large padded blocks. The two hockey nets are brought out of the closet, and the referee, who looks no older than 10, tapes the floor to indicate the goal crease. The teams have 10 minutes before the game starts and use the time to practice.

A table with merchandise and a file box with the teams’ mail fills a portion of the entrance space. A neatly bearded man wearing a baseball cap talks to some parents about upcoming games. He is in a wheelchair and appears to be the authoritative figure of the congregation.

Thirty-year-old Chris Lemieux has been playing Wheelchair Hockey for the past 14 years. A graduate of St. Clair College of Windsor, Lemieux is the chairman and coordinator of the league today.

The sport, although it embraces the rules and conduct of hockey, is played by people who are physically disabled and require the use of a wheelchair.

The group, although brought together by a common affection, consists of varying physical and social characteristics. The players‘ ages range from as young as 12 to as old as 30. Some players have full mobility of their upper torsos and arms, while most are confined by the walls of their chairs. Lemieux, who is affected by Spinal Muscular Atrophy, generally plays defense or left wing.

“As I have gotten older, my body has gotten weaker, but my mind has gotten stronger so I have had to adapt my playing style. I no longer am the player who scores goals, but I have become more of a leader and a coach and now can make an impact on the game without scoring goals”, said Lemieux.

The Wheelchair Hockey League not only provides the community with a fresh perspective on sports, but allows participants new perspective on life. According to the Council for Disability Awareness, more than 35 million Americans are identified as being disabled; which accounts for about 12 percent of the total population. More than 50% of those disabled Americans are between the ages of 18 and 64 and will sacrifice their working years. The CDA’s 2011 Long Term Disability Claims Review states that over 25percent of disability claims in 2010 were due to Musculoskeletal/connective tissue disorders. Nevertheless the group of colorful athletes maintain a positive attitude towards their conditions.

According to the CDA, sports can be an effective way to enhance favorable health, well-being, social inclusion and community building for people with a physical disability.

“My disability has definitely given me a drive to prove that people with disabilities can be athletes, too”, said Kevin Konfara, a 19-year-old Larsinsyndrome patient who is attending his sophomore year at Madonna University. It is evident that for everyone involved, hockey has provided a world of positive change and acceptance that those who play, don’t always witness.
“Hockey has allowed me to become, both a better speaker and leader, on and off the court,” says 20-year-old Dean Olivas.

Both Olivas and Konfara have been playing in the league for the past 10 years and are in the prime of their athletic career. Aside from the basic WCHL season, Lemieux, Olivas and Konfara, along with a number of other players from the league have travelled throughout North America with the Michigan Mustangs hockey team to compete. The Mustangs have won the Power Hockey Championships and brought home the gold in 2009 and 2011 and silver in 2010.

“Without hockey, my life would be drastically different,” said Lemieux. “I would not have an outlet for physical activity during the winter. I would not have as many friends as I do, and I would not be driven to be better or do good for others. Hockey has allowed me to make a difference in other peoples’ lives, and I believe that is the greatest gift anyone can give”.

For more information about the Wheelchair Hockey League feel free to visit their web-site at: http://www.thewchl.com

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