Recreational Therapy with the Northeast Passage

Located in the basement of Hewitt Hall there is a small office space fill with wheelchairs and cubicle dividers. A hum of an electric wheelchair can be heard coming across the room to with a friendly greeting. “Welcome to the Northeast Passage. How can I help you?”

The Northeast Passage is a non-profit organization that has partnered with the University of New Hampshire to provide innovative solutions for individuals with disabilities.

In addition to other services the Northeast Passage provides organizes and maintains adaptive recreation equipment and events. By doing so the Northeast Passage is able to provide the opportunity for people with disabilities to become involved in outdoor and team recreation.

“We have four competitive sports teams and many other seasonal and intramural activities,” said Reilly Murphy, Administrative Assistant for Northeast Passage. “In the next couple weeks our competitive sports teams practicing in the Whitt or Hamel Rec Center on both Saturdays and Sundays. We also have an adaptive archery session in the field house last week.”

One popular intramural sport is handball. The Northeast Passage has been holding recreation games open to the public in the Hamel Rec. Center since 2000. However, in 2009 they partnered with UNH Campus Rec and now how several adaptive sports included within the intramural programs.

“We want to provide the opportunity for people with disabilities in our community to play recreational sports,”  Chandler Bullard, coach of the quad ruby team and a  Northeast Passage volunteer, said. “Since there are not enough people in the community to form a full team, we open the invitation to others and put them in chairs to level the playing field.”

In addition, wheelchair sports also student without disabilities the opportunity to develop different muscle groups that are not often used in other intramural sports.

“My arms got so tired,” said Sarah Elgar, a UNH student attending the night’s handball game. “It was definitely a great upper body workout.”

Adaptive sports in the intramural leagues have grown in popularity over the past few years. This year the first registered team of wheelchair handballers the “Frisbees” looks to clinch the championship.

“On a good night we typically get enough people to field at least three teams,” said Bullard. “The “Frisbees” are here every week, and the rest of the people come and go. We are always open to new people showing up.”

In addition to intramural sports in the recreation center the Northeast Passage sponsors several competitive adaptive sports teams. Many athletes on these teams are in the process of training for the Paralympics.

Originally having been called “murder-ball” quad rugby is one of the most popular and most physical wheelchair sports. It is played by over 25 countries worldwide.

“The chairs that look like mini tanks”, said coach Chandler Bullard, “Last time I went to show a play in this [points down to his chair] I broke a spoke.”

“We have a good team this year,” said Bullard. “This is the busiest time of the season and we have been playing well and finishing towards the top in all the tournament we have been to.”

On November 21st, the team hits the road again to play in another tournament in New York City, and travel to Washington D.C. after Thanksgiving.

In order to play on the team an athlete must be quadriplegic that is effected in at least three limbs. Each athlete is assigned classification points depending on the amount of movement they have in their arms. The value is on a scale ranging from 0.5-3.5, 0.5 being little or no function of the arms and 3.5 being the highest.

“I am not allowed to play more than eight classification on the court at one time, so you have to set your line ups accordingly,” said Bullard. “This can be a real challenge when you playing shorthanded with few subs.”

Like most adaptive sports quad rugby is played on regulation sized basketball court. Teams typically consist on 9-12 people with only 4 players from each team allowed on the court at a time.

“The game would really be better if it could be played on a larger court with more people, but we have to work with what available to us,” said Bullard. “Basketball courts have always been the most accessible area available for the disabled, so that has always been the set area where these games are played.”

Historically people with disabilities have always had easy access to basketball courts.  So as new adaptive sports were created  they were designed to use this resource.

In addition to quad rugby the Northeast Passage also sponsors a competitive sled hock, alpine skiing, Nordic skiing and power soccer.

Power soccer is specifically designed for individuals who are confined to an electric wheelchair. Many of the individuals who play are no able to use traditional wheelchairs so this provides them a chance to get involved.

“Even though it not a physically demanding sport power soccer is a good way to get people with more severe disabilities involved in recreational sports,” said Cam Forys, the assistant volunteer coach to the Northeast Passage power soccer team. “Athletes still are able to achieve an elevated heart rate do to the game time rush. This increased blood flow can be very beneficial to an individual who is permanently confined to a chair.”

Like quad rugby the game was designed to play on a basketball court with four players from each team.

The chairs are equipped with a plastic or metal guard in the front. Unlike real soccer this makes it hard for one player to dribble down to the field and juke around defenders. To compensate players must maintain good positioning and spacing so they can pass the ball and move as a unit down the court.

“Power soccer is cool because anyone who is familiar with soccer can look at it and instantly understand what is happening in the game,” said Forys.

The effect adaptive recreation has had on the community has been great. According to Murphy recreation can help prevent depression and increase social and community involvement for a person with disabilities. By providing many different forms of recreation and many different levels of entry Northeast Passage hopes provide recreational services to any one in the community who needs it, and help those interested to reach their goals.


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