Michigan State University’s Adaptive Sports is on a Mission to Provide Sports for All

By Jason Laplow

Nov. 30, 2022

photo by Jason Laplow

Upon first glance, Demonstration Hall is bleak-looking. Located among some of the oldest buildings on the campus of Michigan State University, it’s easily confused for Jenison Field House, IM Sports West, or any other barn-looking, brick building scattered throughout the university's athletics core. Much like the other brown buildings, however, Demonstration Hall’s façade doesn’t necessarily match its character.

It once housed both the basketball and hockey teams. It’s the home of the Army ROTC program. Walk by it at the right time, and you’re bound to hear the harmonious rumblings of the Spartan Marching Band. But perhaps the storied building’s greatest feature is one that most people will never use. In the middle, where basketballs once bounced and hockey pucks once flew, Demonstration Hall is a battleground for games of blind soccer, pickleball, sit volleyball, and more—in an arena designed for adaptive sports. 

Jody Strank is the Assistant Director of Recreational Sports and Fitness Services and helped to make the arena fully disability-friendly during its renovation in 2018. The renovation included widening doors, removing barriers that previously blocked wheelchairs from freely entering, and adding special marks on the floor to accommodate for wheelchair-centered sports. The arena holds adaptive recreation sessions every Tuesday night where anyone and everyone is welcome. 

“It’s just giving the opportunity for persons with disabilities, students, faculty, staff, alumni, to have some time and space to recreate,” Strank said. 

Adaptative recreation has been on Michigan State’s campus for over 35 years. There are currently around a dozen sports offered, each of which caters to different abilities, and Strank explained that “able-bodied or able-visioned friends” often help those with disabilities to enjoy sports and activities that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. 

Sit volleyball involves everyone, disabled or not, sitting on either side of the net and volleying the ball back and forth, allowing an even playing field for those with the inability to use their legs. The only sighted people in blind soccer are the two goalies, and those on the field are either blind or wear a blindfold—again, to offer an even playing field for all involved. There are tandem cycles for those who are visually impaired and hand cycles for those in wheelchairs. The adaptive sports website reads “if we do not offer your sport now, we will find a way to implement it”—and that is exactly what happened in the case of pickleball, a sport that has recently been added into the adaptive sports repertoire. 

“We’re giving anybody the opportunity that wants to play a sport,” Strank said. “For example, I had a person come into my office this semester and say ‘Hey, you know, I’ve played pickleball and I want to know if we have any wheelchair pickleball on campus.’ I said ‘Absolutely, we will do it on Tuesday nights.’” 

What happens on Tuesday nights involves more than just pickleballing, however. According to Strank, there is a huge amount of socialization that takes place, which is especially important in the wake of the pandemic. The main theme of the gatherings is to give people opportunities—and those opportunities expand beyond just those who are disabled. Volunteers are always welcome, and many who attend are Michigan State nursing students. They receive credit for their volunteer hours, but many have gained more than they thought they would in volunteering in adaptive sports, like Emily Bahu, a junior nursing major. 

“I’ve never thought about like, you know, working with people that have disabilities,” Bahu said. “I’d say being here helped me become more comfortable doing so. I always felt like it was something that I kind of had to, like—I don’t want to say tiptoe around, but be cautious, but especially being here I realized that I don’t need to be nervous or feel like I’m gonna say the wrong thing.” 

Bahu went on to say that having the hands-on experience in working one-on-one with people with disabilities is something that is crucial for a potential nurse to have and being involved with adaptive sports has opened avenues for her in nursing that she hadn’t previously explored. 

The importance of having opportunities for recreation is huge for Roberto Briseno, a veteran and Michigan State alumni who currently works in the university’s Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities. Briseno was a student at Michigan State approximately five years ago when he was the victim of a violent crime in which gunshot wounds injured his spinal cord and rendered him unable to walk. After being active his entire life, serving in the military and attending college, adjusting to life in a wheelchair for the past five years has been difficult, but being active within adaptive sports has certainly helped. 

“The most important thing is being active,” Briseno said. “Especially during the winter months, we can’t be outside as much. I always saw it as like, a community thing. It helped me with my mental health. Physical, competitive, and yeah—I hope that’s the same for other people.” 

Briseno started participating in adaptive sports almost immediately after he was injured. He enjoys wheelchair basketball, hockey, tennis, and pickleball. He explained that just being a part of the activities goes a long way in combatting stigmas around those who are disabled.  

“People don’t realize the [importance of] adaptive sports when you’re able to walk,” Briseno said. “Having this experience puts you in someone else’s shoes, in a different mindset.” 

He echoed the sentiment of the nursing students in saying that being around and interacting people with disabilities is crucial in combatting the stigma, saying that he feels that “a lot of people are almost scared” of him, but “seeing a disabled person” such as himself “still being competitive” makes the fear melt away. 

Michigan State’s adaptive sports department is currently undergoing a mission to make the sailing center at Lake Lansing fully accessible. Contact Jody Strank at strankj@msu.edu to inquire about donating.