Meeting the Challenges
Your facility may meet the ADA regulations for wheelchair compliance, but is it truly welcoming for players with disabilities?
Chances are, just about every tennis court out there has played host to a wheelchair-bound player at some point. And if it hasn’t yet, it will soon.
“The number of people with disabilities in the United States is in the millions,” says Jeremiah Yolkut of the USTA’s Competitive Play and Technical Programs division. “The No. 1 challenge — what we really want to do — is get those people involved at the grassroots level.”
Thinking of starting wheelchair tennis leagues, lessons or programs at your facility? Start now by setting up your facility so that athletes in wheelchairs have a good experience.
Unlike many other sports, which require special facilities, or which require facilities to be adapted, wheelchair tennis uses the same courts that able-bodied players use. The differences come in the form of rules.
In wheelchair tennis, the ball can bounce twice. If the player in a wheelchair is on the same court as an able-bodied person, the ball may only bounce once for the able-bodied player. Other more specific rules govern how the player may move in the chair, or move the chair around the court, but beyond that, the rules of the game are remarkably similar. There are several divisions that identify the levels of play in wheelchair tennis, and players are rated according to National Tennis Rating Program (NTRP) guidelines. Divisions exist for players with different levels of challenges, including athletes who are quadriplegic. (A list of resources and information is available at the end of this article.)
According to Yolkut, the challenge is not developing rules or divisions for players; it’s identifying and reaching them. The USTA has developed manuals and DVDs on wheelchair tennis, and holds sanctioned wheelchair tennis tournaments, but it’s the average athletes and weekend warriors of wheelchair tennis who are needed.
“If the USTA’s membership is 740,000, and of those, the number of individuals who identify themselves as wheelchair tennis players is in the 700-range, we know we’re missing out on people,” he notes. “We’re just talking about people who want to casually play, who want some exercise and some fun. If we only focus on the elite, then we’re missing those people who are just casually playing.”
Making the U.S. (More) Open
Opening up tennis courts to players who use wheelchairs, says Yolkut, starts with opening up the gates themselves. “At tennis centers that are being built now, things are much more accessible. The openings that allow players to get on the court are wider. While it’s standard for many facilities to have 42-inch-wide gates, you want to have a wider opening for players in wheelchairs because of what we call the camber, or the angle, in the wheels that you’ll see in an athletic wheelchair. You’re much more likely to go to a 48-inch-wide opening because that means you don’t have to take a wheel off the chair to get it through the gate.”
While not all players are self-conscious about having to get out of a wheelchair and “scoot through” the gate, then reassemble the chair inside (or have it passed over the fence to them), eliminating the barriers means the player has a more enjoyable experience. Encountering obstacles can sour players and, says Yolkut, “You don’t want people leaving the sport and thinking, ‘They don’t seem to want to make this easy for me, so why should I bother to play?’“
While public facilities often use fence mazes and other devices to try to keep bicyclists and vandals off the court, such measures will also reduce the accessibility of the court to wheelchair users. Amenities and accessories should be chosen with wheelchair users in mind. Umpire chairs, if movable, allow players to change sides without having to circumvent the entire court and enter through another gate. Ditto any benches or other equipment that sits between the sidelines and the fence.
Wheelchair tennis is played on all surfaces, according to Yolkut, but “with that said, a hard court always seems to be the surface of choice for wheelchair tennis because there’s less friction between the tire and the court, so the players can move a little faster. Wheelchair players can play on other surfaces, but you have to be a little stronger and have that much more endurance. The top players in the world want to play on grass. Clay is a little easier. There’s a huge amount of research that’s done in regard to wheelchair athletics, basically the same way there is research on shoe/surface interactions.”
QuickStart and Wheelchair Tennis
The QuickStart Tennis format, with its shorter courts and softer balls, is being applied to those learning wheelchair tennis as well.
“It lends itself to that as much as for any other introductory player,” says Yolkut. “It’s still teaching the fundamentals, like learning ground strokes, and getting comfortable hitting the ball. It slows the game down and teaches people to build technique.”
Because wheelchair tennis games and tournaments often attract spectators who also have mobility limitations, says Yolkut, the USTA tends to pick out tournament facilities that are more attractive to everyone. Facilities with elevators, without steep ramps, with seating that allows individuals who are wheelchair-bound (or otherwise mobility-impaired) to move around easily and be seated next to their able-bodied friends, all make for a good experience.
Something that facility users will notice immediately (and something on which ADA concentrates) is the actual pathway to get to the facility.
“We focus on the pathway requirements,” says Tony Wood of Beals Alliance in Folsom, Calif. “As designers, we try to appease the masses by keeping ‘ramps’ to a minimum. They cost a lot of money and serve a very small part of the community. We would rather use 20:1 sloped walkways. I have heard from disabled patrons that they hate these. But the cost of 50 feet of 20:1 walk is much cheaper than 30 feet of 12:1 ramp with the additional cost of rails and retaining walls.”
There are aspects of competition that many people don’t know about, according to Matt Hale of Halecon in Bridgewater, N.J. Having these, he notes, can mean all the difference between a facility that is not just accessible, but welcoming.
“Something I believe is critical, yet often missed, is adequate shade for temperature control,” Hale says. “Many individuals with spinal cord or brain injuries are extremely sensitive to temperature, particularly to heat. The more shade, the better.”
Talk to local wheelchair tennis groups about other specific recommendations they would like to see.
Accommodations and accessibility have been a work in progress for more than two decades. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act broke new ground, requiring that public facilities be adapted to provide better access to those with mobility challenges as well as other handicaps and setbacks.
Recently, the U.S. Department of Justice issued final regulations revising Title II and III, including the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. The full text of the new 2010 Standards is available at ada.gov. Specifically mentioned are access to sports facilities including courts, fields and stadiums. For more information, go to the ADA site and click on “What’s New to ADA.gov.”
Reaching Wheelchair Players
Interested in starting wheelchair programs at your facility? You can find sources for reaching current and potential wheelchair players at USTA.com/play-tennis. Click on “Wheelchair Tennis” and then the “Grassroots Wheelchair Tennis Guide” on the right-hand side.
Wheelchair tennis isn’t the only permutation of the sport for athletes with challenges. The USTA’s Adaptive Tennis program recognizes four main categories of disabilities:
- Developmentally disabled (learning disabilities, autism, Down Syndrome, intellectual disabilities)
- Physically disabled (birth defects, multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injury, muscular dystrophy, hearing impaired, stroke, etc.)
- Consumers of mental health services (psychiatrically disabled, emotionally disturbed)
- At-risk/environmentally disabled (substance abusers, mentally and physically abused, homeless, HIV positive individuals, persons within the juvenile justice system, etc.)
For information, go to usta.com and type “adaptive” into the search box.
For More Information
- usta.com/PlayNow/Wheelchair.aspx (Check the Grassroots Guide as well).
(There are also many state and local wheelchair tennis associations.)
See all articles by Mary Helen Sprecher
About the Author
Mary Helen Sprecher is the managing editor of Sports Destinations Management Magazine, a niche business-to-business publication for planners of sports travel events, in addition to being an RSI Contributing Editor. She is the technical writer for the American Sports Builders Association and works as a newspaper reporter in Baltimore City.