At every McMaster home game there are two groups of people: the athletes and the fans. Both are deeply engaged in the evening’s proceedings. Students wearing maroon both on and off the court carry a passion for the game and a love of intense competition. For varsity sports, most students would say they fall into the second category, happy to cheer for a spirited dunk but not quite able to jump in and do it themselves.
But what if students were only able to be spectators?
Such was the experience of fourth-year student Julia Haines. As anyone who has visited the David Braley Athletic Centre can attest to, the campus athletic centre is always bustling with student activity. So when she began her first year at McMaster, Haines, like anyone else, was excited to join some weekend intramural teams and work out in the campus gym.
She would not be so lucky. At the time the only accessible athletic programming at Mac was a one-day wheelchair handball tournament, that had faced dwindling enthusiasm in recent years.
The Pulse, the gym facility on campus, also posed challenges as without an internal elevator Haines required 20 minutes of staff assistance just to reach the cardio equipment on the second floor.
Over 7,500 members of the McMaster community participate in over 35 intramural sports leagues every year, with even more students visiting DBAC facilities like the Pulse regularly. Why couldn’t she?
“I ended up quitting,” said Haines. “It was just so frustrating. I had other ways of being active [in the community], but this summer it really started to bother me. It doesn’t take that much to have accessible [options]… and there are benefits to everyone.”
The Pulse also posed challenges as without an internal elevator Haines required 20 minutes of staff assistance just to reach the cardio equipment on the second floor.
A stroke survivor since her final year of high school, Haines was no stranger to adversity. So she decided to apply some of the same perseverance that had taken her to provincial swimming championships and local soccer titles into making a case for more accessible sports.
A few emails later, and she had a meeting with the Director of Athletics and Recreation Glen Grunwald and the director of intramurals Andrew Pettit. Responsive from the get-go, they were ready to change the way McMaster welcomes all students into the sport community.
“[Through my experience] I really started to understand the impact parasports and accessible opportunities have on people,” said Haines. “Sports have a number of benefits, we see it in [research], we hear people say it, it gives you an outlet for stress… all wonderful things. But what we don’t always realize is that sport can have that same impact for people with disabilities as well… that’s what I wanted [for Mac]”
They decided to start with a small sitting volleyball league that would run on Sunday afternoons and not require any special equipment. Today, the eight-team league is over capacity and had to move to a prime-time Monday time slot to accommodate all of the interest.
“Every Monday night Sport Hall is filled with people playing sitting volleyball,” said Haines. “Our team has four people with disabilities on it, and when I was watching them and and hearing how much fun they were having and how much they were looking forward to next week… I was ready to sit there and [cry].”
Other new initiatives include a revival of the age-old sitting hand-ball tournament and two sport wheelchairs for anyone at Mac to rent out and use whenever the gym is available.
“Almost every time I go into the gym someone is either using them or sitting on them or asking about them and it is absolutely awesome,” said Haines.
While the changes in accessible programming are certainly welcome, they are only the start when it comes to truly changing the athletics landscape at a university-wide level. Haines envisions a school where paraathletes can not only play on intramural teams, but can complete at the varsity level, no longer delegated to the spectator section because of personal circumstance.
“People with disabilities are people who have happened to live through difficult circumstances that they wear on their bodies,” said Haines. “Everyone has challenges, people with disabilities just happen to wear their challenges on them.”
Haines also encourages everyone to takes steps to actively change how inclusive their own activities are. Whether that is as simple as holding a hockey tournament in an accessible arena, or reaching out to have a conversation about what other steps might be helpful, every action can be the difference between storming the court and sitting in the bleachers.
“I know how it feels to be excluded,” said Haines. “I know how it feels to walk or roll past people in the gym playing everyday and knowing that you just can’t… and that you will never be a part of that. So to see people have the opportunity to be with their friends, have fun and exercise their right to participate… it’s overwhelming… it’s everything.”