As 2021 comes to a close, we wanted to take a moment to acknowledge a milestone that may not be top of mind to most, but a super significant one to our physically-challenged community of students in Georgia.
The 2021-2022 School Year marks our 25th year of wheelchair sports via the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs – the governing body for interscholastic adapted sports in the state of Georgia. As we celebrate this important milestone, we are compelled to share the story of how we got where we are today – and want to thank the pioneers who blazed the trail for the student athletes that are now moving from sport to sport each season to keep active and enjoy competitive interscholastic play in wheelchair handball, basketball and football.
Here is a quick look back at how it all started here in Georgia…
In the shadow of the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games, DeKalb County School System and their coordinator, therapeutic recreation specialist, Ms. Beverly Vaughn, were discovered to be responsible for a hidden gem. Their Adapted Sports Program at Margaret Harris High School boasted over 75 students with physical or visual impairments competing in sport. Here, bussed from around the district, girls and boys in grades 1-12, representing over 40 forms of physical disability, met to play wheelchair basketball or team handball, after school. A track and field meet – the Victory Games – drawing over 200 local and regional participants, was also run by Ms. Vaughn and DeKalb in the spring.
The Atlanta Paralympic Organizing Committee dubbed the program, “The Model for the Nation” and today, it is celebrated as one of the legacies of those Games. But, at the time, what DeKalb lacked to look exactly like any other sports program at any other school, was another school-based adapted sports team – even one – to play their multiple teams. We also wanted more able-bodied fans from all the schools in the stands.
Ms. Vaughn and I, a DeKalb volunteer, music business professional and radio personality (WFOX, WSB), were determined this must change. Why couldn’t “inclusion” look like this? Girls’ sports. Boys’ sports. Adapted Sports. All were designed for the specific abilities and needs of their group. So, why couldn’t each be celebrated as full participants in the athletic offerings of their school system?
We resolved to create an athletic association, the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs (AAASP), devoted solely to expansion of opportunities for physically disabled (PD) students and the creation of standardization in adapted sports. AAASP would model itself almost exactly as state high school associations and the NCAA – a cooperating membership of school systems and educational institutions in sport. In so doing, we found our lane and life’s work.
On this, our 25th Anniversary, AAASP celebrates its over 7000 seasonal participants in Georgia since 1996, hosting more than 2200 local and state interscholastic competitions. It offered the nation’s first cross-disability trainings to over 2000 coaches and officials in interscholastic adapted sports, with courses now offered, free and online, through its program partner, the National Federation of State High School Associations. Some 210 schools in Georgia have had participants in AAASP team sports (wheelchair team handball, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair football) and PD students in every county and district have access to track and field participation through the AAASP/Georgia High School Association (GHSA) Alliance, formed in 2001.
Make no mistake. This is still almost entirely unheard of in other states – local access to regularly offered, academically tethered sport opportunities for their PD student. Nor is this merely another inspiring story of the human spirt. This is institutional and societal change in a sustainable form. These students’ letter in their sport, receive state championship titles though AAASP/GHSA. The media treats them as athletes and their games as “real sports.” There were 15 high school graduates from the Georgia programs last year, five of whom received either an academic or athletic scholarship to attend college, but nearly all pursuing higher education.
AAASP Athletes have historically graduated at a rate averaging 88%, while 52% is the national average for these kids. Our ground-breaking work is recognized by the Ford Foundation, the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University; United Way’s IMPACT Award; Tommy Nobis Program Award; Perimeter College’s MLK Corporate Humanitarian Award. AAASP is a two-time national program award recipient from the nations’ largest membership of physical educators and programmers in rehabilitation and sport (AAHPERD, now called SHAPE). (In truth, there is a long list representing an embarrassment of riches in accolades.) And yet…
According to the US Department of Education and many researchers, those still sidelined from such gifts of health and inclusion, the sense of belonging sports participation at school can provide – remain two or three times as likely to be bullied, become a pregnant teen, attempt or succeed in suicide or drop out of school.
We can do more. YOU can do more. Let that child or family who may be eligible know that the Georgia Department of Education, AAASP and GHSA remain determined as partners in this cause to make a difference in the lives of these athletes. We have a winning formula that must continue to build a winning team of superintendents, principles, teachers, coaches, officials, donors and sponsors.
Visit adaptedsports.org to learn how you can help transform lives and athletics through AAASP and help us celebrate what we have already achieved together. Give the gift of sports to all this holiday season!
Executive Director, Cofounder
American Association of Adapted Sports Programs