Wheelchair athletes speak to Unity students

Wheelchair athletes speak to Unity students

Unity East Elementary School third-graders Lexi Garretson and Leanna Horton know that everyone has the ability to succeed, no matter what the challenges.

"Even if you have a disability, you're still the same as other people," Garretson said.

"People that have disabilities can still kind of do stuff that you do," Horton added.

The students were among those who listened to two sets of speakers for the school's "We All Come in Different Packages Day," a biannual disabilities-awareness event.

School social worker Kathy Kearney-Grobler led a committee that organized the event. This year, the committee chose to invite primarily college-age speakers.

"The Unit 7 schools do a great job of trying to be inclusive of students with various learning disabilities and physical disabilities," Kearney-Grobler said. "The kids learned a lot, and the speakers were wonderful in their openness. I want them (students) to see that they (the speakers) may have some unique challenges, but they are able to enjoy and experience life to its fullest."

"It's also good because these same students are represented in our schools," Principal Laura Fitzgerald said. "They are able to see role models and outcomes for people they might not otherwise know about."

One of the speakers, Tiffany Wilkinson, a member of the University of Illinois women's wheelchair basketball team, first coached the sport and then learned that even those with minimal disabilities can play. Her multiple knee injuries from playing high school basketball qualified her.

Wilkinson showed the students how she straps herself into the chair with a lap belt. She pointed out two front caster wheels and a fifth wheel in the back.

"My big wheels are at a slant," she said, indicating the ones toward the rear. "When I'm playing, it gives me more stability."

"So when you're trying to shoot, you don't fall backwards," third-grader Will Hamlin observed.

Students asked how wheelchair basketball players pick up the ball.

"It kind of rolls up on your wheel," Wilkinson said.

Another speaker, Patty Cisneros, is a former member of the U.S. Paralympic women's wheelchair basketball team. She has traveled the world, competing in Sydney; Athens, Greece; and Beijing, winning gold medals in the last two. Cisneros, who was paralyzed following a car accident near Indiana University 12 years ago, is now the head coach for the UI women's wheelchair basketball team.

Speaker John Mize used to race motorcycles. He had an accident in which his bike landed on his back, leaving him paralyzed.

"I loved going fast," Mize said.

He now satisfies that passion with a specially designed wheelchair for racing. Mize showed students the chair that even features a speedometer.

"This is a really expensive pair of running shoes," Mize quipped, adding that the frame and wheels together cost about $3,500.

"Would you play basketball in your teacher's shoes?" Cisneros asked. "No, they'd be too big. So it costs us a little more money when it fits us."

Students asked how Mize gets in his chair.

"When we move over to our bed or the tub, we use our arms to move," Cisneros explained, demonstrating as she spoke. "I push up and slide my body across."

Students wanted to know if the wheelchair athletes' arms ever get tired.

"Not really, normally," Cisneros said. "We're used to it because we're always using our arms."

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