WISCONSIN RAPIDS, Wisconsin — On one end of a rope in Lake Wazeecha, a boat revved its engine and began to accelerate. On the other end, 22-year-old Sarah Holm held on tight as the rope whipped out of the water and pulled her away from the shore. Bleachers of spectators watched.

Holm once thought she would never ski again. There was a tumor on her spine, a surgery, and a loss of functioning in her legs that put in her in a wheelchair at 16.

“I didn’t know what my future would hold,” Holm said. “I thought I would just have to sit on the sidelines and cheer.”

As the country celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with disabilities continue to face challenges in finding employment, housing, and welcoming environments. In the face of these barriers, adaptive sports are gaining popularity as a fun and effective way for people with disabilities to gain confidence in all areas of their lives and build networks of support.

As Holm bolted out on Lake Wazeecha in late August, she was supported by the Colsac Skiers, a ski school based on Lake Wisconsin that offers instruction for people with disabilities. A special wakeboard allows people with disabilities to ride while seated, holding onto the rope if they are able, flanked by supporting able-bodied skiers if needed.

Adaptive sports provide opportunities for people with disabilities to show what they are capable of and break down stereotypes. Advocates also encourage people without disabilities to participate, so people of different abilities can come together wheelchair to wheelchair, wakeboard to wakeboard, with the hope that they can live and work better together in all arenas.

Despite progress over the past 25 years, people with disabilities are half as likely to be employed as people without them in Wisconsin. Monica Murphy, a managing attorney for Disability Rights Wisconsin, said employment is the biggest problem people with disabilities are continuing to face post-ADA.

The reasons, Murphy said: “Ignorance, stigma, and fear.”

Adaptive sports are not watered down or made any easier; they employ special equipment and different rules to match the rigor of traditional sports with their own unique challenges.

“No one gives us any pity for playing,” said Kimberly High School senior Ryan Jansen, who plays wheelchair basketball. “There’s no ‘everybody wins.’ You play to win and that’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

For Jansen, the court is a change of pace from his school environment. Jansen said school staff have done “everything they possibly can” to make sure he has a fair shot at learning among his classmates, but he is still conscious of his disability.

“I’m the only one in a chair,” said Jansen, whose spinal cord was injured in a car crash when he was 3.

Every Tuesday and Thursday, Jansen and one of his parents drive 100 miles to a basketball court in Milwaukee where Jansen swaps his regular wheelchair for a sports chair. Joined by his Milwaukee Heat teammates, he no longer stands out for sitting down.

“I feel like I fit in,” Jansen said. “I try my best at school but it’s not anywhere near the same as when I’m with my team. We all treat each other the same.”

The experience has given him strength off the court, too.

“I wouldn’t have any drive whatsoever to do anything,” Jansen said, considering life without basketball. “There’s been such a confidence boost with having that competitive side expressed.”

Jansen knows he’s lucky he has parents who drive him to Milwaukee on a regular basis to compete. He said he has other friends with disabilities who would be interested in playing if it weren’t for the lengthy commute.

Noting the importance of exercise for physical health, and the unique barriers people with disabilities face when trying to get it, the Medical College of Wisconsin has taken a special interest in expanding access to adaptive sports. It hosted an Adaptive Sports and Recreation Expo in June, where organizations displayed their offerings.

Moriah Iverson, a program director with the medical college’s department of physical medicine and rehabilitation, is conducting an online survey to explore whether the college could provide a service to help people discover and connect with adaptive sports.

Her initial findings: “In general I think people want this and don’t have access to it,” Iverson said.

Advocates for adaptive sports are taking several approaches to expanding programming. One avenue is through high school athletics.

Cindy Housner, executive director of the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association, said schools have been gradually improving on this front, especially since the U.S. Department of Education clarified requirements for providing equal opportunities in 2013.

Housner said “more work needs to be done,” but she has found athletic directors and coaches in Wisconsin to be receptive to including students with disabilities when they understand how to do it. The cost of sport wheelchairs can sometimes be prohibitive, but her organization is available to help schools find resources and strategies.

Meanwhile, other programs are expanding for adults and for students who prefer to be on teams where everyone is using adaptive equipment. Housner tips her hat to Damian Buchman, who has worked this year to establish the Wisconsin Adaptive Sports Association (WASA), a partnership of several adaptive sports providers and advocates.

As one of WASA’s first projects, the organization is working with recreation departments in the Milwaukee area to offer free open gyms where people can learn a range of adaptive sports.

“We are so far behind as a state in these services,” Buchman said. “Most people don’t know it exists or that they qualify for adaptive sports.”

WASA is also looking at establishing an adaptive high school athletic program that would bring kids with disabilities together from several schools in a conference to create an adaptive team, which would compete against teams from other conferences. Buchman said he recognizes adaptive sports equipment can be prohibitively expensive and he hopes his organization could help make it feasible.

With the Colsac Skiers, Holm also recognizes cost as a major barrier for people with disabilities to participate in sports. That’s why the organization runs on volunteer power and offers free lessons.

“People with disabilities have so many extra costs, so to be able to recreate can be hard,” Holm said. “We already have enough barriers in our life so it’s important that we can offer this without charging.”

As Holm sped around Lake Wazeecha, she smoothly caught air, and spun herself around to ride backward. Some sit-skiers need able-bodied skiers to ride on either side of them to hold them up, but Holm has built enough arm strength and balancing skills to ride on her own.

As she finished her loop of the lake, Holm tossed the rope in the air at exactly the right moment to break away from the boat and coast to shore, floating free for a moment before people wading in the water caught her and pulled her onto land.

The crowd on the bleachers broke into applause.

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