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Wide, wide world of sports

Examining oft-ignored sports for the differently abled

News outlets devoted entire sections of their websites to the London 2012 Olympics; the Paralympics got considerably less press. This is just one example, but often sports for individuals with different abilities are featured less prominently in media and thus fade from public consciousness. Yet there is a diverse range of athletic events available for individuals with different abilities: sports that extend beyond wheelchair basketball and five-on-five soccer. Below are some examples, many of which have been incorporated into both the summer and winter Paralympics.

Beep Baseball

Some telephone parts and an old-fashioned baseball: that’s all it took for Charlie Fairbanks to invent the first Beep baseball in 1964. Beep baseball, a far more challenging version of baseball for the visually impaired than the heavily padded and tiptoeing previous versions. Beep baseball is a thrilling combination of speed, athletic fumbling, and an urgently beeping baseball. In the game, the pitcher, catcher, and batter are in it together; the pitcher tries to aim the ball directly where the batter can hit it, and should the batter succeed in hitting the ball, the umpire pushes a button, activating a horn at either first or third base. The batter runs, and six fielders try to smother the incessantly beeping ball before the batter reaches their base. Defense is crucial and challenging – we have the Doppler effect to blame for that – but there are those who specialize in it, bringing to the sport a combination of courage and technique. An enthralling spectator sport, beep baseball offers an alternate version of a classic.

Hand Cycling

Powered by arms instead of legs, many hand cycles are tricyclic, with two coasting rear wheels and a steerable front wheel. This general structure aids stability and allows seated, lying, or kneeling positions. ‘Off road’ handcycles, on the other hand, have two front wheels and a single back wheel. This, along with a high gear ratio range, allows them to brave steep slopes and facilitate handcycle ‘mountain biking.’ At the Paralympics, handcycling events include relays and time trials, and races are held on the road rather than in the velodrome.


Invented in 1946 in an attempt to rehabilitate veterans who had lost their sight in World War II, goalball is now a Paralympic sport played on a volleyball-sized court, with goals at either end spanning the entire back-line. Teams consist of six members, but play is three-on-three; there are three positions (center, left wing, and right wing), but team members often switch positions with substitutes during play to confuse the opposition. Tactile markings on the ground allow players to orient themselves by feeling with their hands and feet while they ‘throw’ a 1.25 kilogram ball across the court (rolling it in a bowling-type motion). The ball, with bells inside, can be tracked as it travels across the court, and team members work in a concerted effort to keep it from passing the goal line. At expert levels, such as at Nationals and at the Paralympics, shots sometimes exceed sixty kilometres per hour, making defense difficult. Time limits and specialized rules further make this sport unique – the defense has only ten seconds to relinquish the ball after they first touch it, for example, and on a penalty shot, the penalized player must defend the net alone.


A descendant of Greek ball tossing games, and similar to Bocce ball, Boccia was officially recognized as a Paralympic sport in 1984. It is strategically similar to lawn bowling, but is played indoors in wheelchairs, with the objective being to propel leather balls by almost any means necessary.  Techniques include kicking, throwing, or using an assistive device to knock a white target ball called the jack, along a long and narrow field of play. Each competitor has six leather balls, and receives one point at the end for each ball closer to the jack than their opponents’ balls. Played individually, in pairs, and in teams, Boccia is a distinctive sport with a rich history.

Sledge Hockey

Originating in Sweden in the 1960s, sledge hockey is quickly gaining popularity throughout the world as a version of hockey for amputees and paraplegics. The rules for this game are the same as for ice hockey, with six players on the ice at a time for each team, including the goalie. The only distinction is that players sit on an often-personalized sledge, a narrow platform with skate blades attached. Players propel themselves using specialized hockey sticks with picks on one end and blades – for handling of the puck – on the other. Goalies may have an additional pick at the base of their stick, and can use an additional stick with a blade or trapper glove. Currently played by 15 countries, sledge hockey has been a part of the winter Paralympics since 1994. Usually it is played by all-male teams, but at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympic Games a provision was approved to allow female players onto the roster.


With shock absorption systems and adjustable parts, sitskis are as much engineering feats as they are sports equipment. Sitskis are exactly what they sound like: skis that allow a skier with different abilities to ride in a seated position. The rules of the skiing are unchanged, but the particular sitski used can make a large difference in speed and experience. There are both monoskis and bi-skis, with one and two blades respectively, and both offer distinct advantages. Bi-skis, for example, offer more balance and a wider base. Turning and navigation require leaning and dragging of hands and short poles through the snow; upper-body strength and balance are integral to this winter Paralympics sport. Introduced at the 1984 Paralympics, sitskiing joined other ski events such as the slalom and giant slalom, opening up opportunities for differently abled skiers beyond the visually impaired and amputees.