Bob Smith is a coach of a basketball team, an organizer and advocate of sports and a passionate, active father to his three teenage children. He plays on a basketball team and a lacrosse team, with his daughter and two sons and uses his spare time to train and coach like-minded people.
Bob also has Multiple Sclerosis, a debilitating disease that can cause disability and weakness in parts of the body, such as the legs. Bob is able to enjoy life and remain so active and healthy thanks to his involvement with the Abilities Centre in Whitby.
The Abilities Centre is a 125,000 square foot, multi-faceted recreation and fitness complex, which focuses on providing access and support to people with disabilities in Durham Region.
"The Abilities Centre provides disabled people with resources for social interaction, physical education, sports teams and knowledge to improve their physical performance," said Bob. "They accomplish this by providing wheelchair accessible and adaptive gyms, equipment, and supportive groups and programming."
The Abilities Centre does not stop there; it provides music classes, social clubs, educational programs and a wide variety of different wheelchair sports teams to be a part of. The facility’s main drive is to promote community and social living for people with disabilities and to allow access to exercise and sports for all abilities, disabled and able-bodied.
Bob’s children are able-bodied, but they play the game of wheelchair basketball alongside him - entirely unique to Durham Region.
"You can play wheelchair basketball whether you are able bodied, partially disabled or have a more impacting disability," said Bob. "All three of my kids are able-bodied and they play alongside me and sometimes in tournaments; it’s a great time."
The concept of wheelchair sports may seem unorthodox to some, but they are very actually challenging, from wheelchair lacrosse to wheelchair basketball to sledge hockey.
Bob gives a basic run-down of the rules, "Wheelchair basketball is very similar to stand-up basketball, including the regulation courts and nets, except the players do not use their legs and they are in a special wheelchair designed for sports. The rules are slightly modified, such as traveling; instead of steps, players must dribble every two pushes they make with their arms."
The Abilities Centre holds Bob’s belief that anything can be made accessible and that life can be barrier free, no matter one’s ability level. The Ability Centre’s team have a range of able bodied and disabled athletes, ranging in age from seven years old to members in their sixties. Wheelchair sports are also highly recommended by occupational therapists because they are great exercise for the body and mind and great strength and aerobic training, according to wheelchair lacrosse coach Christine Comeau.
Bob explains why he loves to be involved in the Abilities Centre.
"I coach wheelchair basketball and play other sports because personally, being disabled, staying active is the best way to improve my health and to keep moving forward and training, despite the fact that I am in a wheelchair sometimes," Bob said. "Disabled people have certain limitations, but there are no barriers that cannot be overcome. Wheelchair sports remove those barriers and adapt the sports so that people with disabilities can stay active, competitive and social."
Bob and Christine are trying to spread the word about wheelchair accessible sports in Ontario and Canada.
"It’s unfortunate that wheelchair sports and the Abilities Centre is not more well known," Bob said. "I know there are lots of kids, teenagers and adults who are disabled and would love the opportunity to play, compete and be active without barriers and among likeminded people."
One highly involved team member, Jeremy Booker, has traveled the world on Team Canada for sledge hockey.
"I went to Sweden for the world championship of sledge hockey in 2004, the Torino Olympics in 2006 and the team brought home gold, and Vancouver in 2010," Jeremy said. Jeremy has always loved rough, contact sports and loves wheelchair lacrosse especially because of the amount of skill needed to wield a stick and push his chair at the same time.
Recently, the Abilities Centre hosted a tournament with the Wheelchair Lacrosse U.S.A. (WLUSA) team at the Civic Centre in Oshawa, during the Women’s Lacrosse World Cup. One of the player’s on the WLUSA team was Ryan Baker.
Ryan, a T6 paraplegic who has been in a wheelchair for 22 years since the day he was injured in a car accident after his high school graduation, traveled to Oshawa from San Diego, California to help promote wheelchair sports in North America.
"We started wheelchair lacrosse in 2009 in San Diego, but there was no organization that was supporting the growth of competitive sports for people in wheelchairs," said Ryan. "Me and my friends took it upon ourselves to start it with a team and a rulebook."
Ryan’s success has been slow but steady, but he is always excited to see new interest from athletes and is very happy to visit the Abilities Centre. His goal is to create a wheelchair lacrosse team in every major city across North America, to give people with disabilities an improved quality of life.
"People in wheelchairs work, have families and own businesses, but the recreational aspect of our lives can be hard to access, says Ryan. "Wheelchair sports help us to re-assimilate, develop social routine and foster relationships with like-minded people. Everyone has a need for sports and friendship, whether you are disabled or not."
Disabled or able bodied, male or female, young or old; wheelchair sports and the Abilities Centre offers an exciting new take on recreation and exercise for everyone.
In order to get involved, check the Abilities Centre web site at www.abilitiescentre.org, phone 905-665-8500 or come visit at 55 Gordon Street, Whitby.
Further information can be found at the Ontario Wheelchair Sports Association’s website at www.ontwheelchairsports.org.