Author: Sam Brady, 23rd September 2021

Recently, I was invited by Dr Jennifer Stratton to make an educational video about my research for her blog, Team Possible. With Team Possible, Jen is aiming to showcase what is possible for disabled people via sport. She worked with the late Nick Springer, an American Wheelchair Rugby player, to tell his story and entry to wheelchair sport via her new book: Nick Springer On the Move. With this book, she launched a number of educational resources for people to better understand the world of adaptive sport. My video is one of these resources and highlights how athlete agency in particular is a huge part of the evolution of sporting wheelchairs and these sports overall.

It was really great to have this opportunity, as sharing personal stories about the Paralympics and adaptive sports is key to motivating the next generation of players, from the elite athletes to the grassroots players. Whilst my video is a broader narrative about the history of sporting wheelchairs, the experiences of individuals are key to this history. This is also why organisations like the National Paralympic Heritage Trust are so important, as in a Paralympic focused collection, these stories can be highlighted and celebrated. 

Going forward, I’m going to keep thinking about how to best share my work in accessible and entertaining ways, as these are historical narratives that teach us a lot about disability, sporting and technological history. As mentioned last month, I’ve been lucky enough to be featured on some podcasts, but educational videos present a new way to share these stories to (hopefully) a wider audience!

You can watch the video below. Please find a transcript and list of visual sources beneath:

Check out the work of Jennifer Stratton and Team Possible here:

 A (very) brief history of sporting wheelchairs: Video Transcript 

If you have never seen the Paralympics or Adaptive sport, you might be wondering what a sporting wheelchair is. Simply put, sporting wheelchairs are wheelchairs that are used for sport. Pretty simple, right? But there are loads of variations of sporting wheelchairs, like chairs for basketball, rugby, skiing, and loads of other sports. So now you might be asking, ‘where did all these chairs come from?’ In this video I’m going to give a brief history of the sporting wheelchair. 

In the mid 1940s, Disabled people - or people with disabilities - who needed to use a wheelchair began to play sports as part of rehabilitation. At hospitals and rehabilitation centres, sport was played in medical wheelchairs, because these were the only kinds of chairs available at this time. These chairs were not flashy or fast like what is used today. In fact, some of these wheelchairs looked like armchairs with wheels stuck on! To doctors at the time, this made sense, because they wanted to make sure that people using wheelchairs were comfortable and safe. However, they didn’t realise that these wheelchairs were heavy and restrictive, and stopped disabled people from being independent and doing what they wanted. Because they were so heavy, for example, pushing these chairs all day long would have been incredibly tiring and made getting around a much bigger task than it should be. So, In the late 1970s, wheelchair users began to experiment with their technology. They were frustrated with these hospital style chairs and wanted something to suit their active lifestyle. Most importantly, they wanted chairs that would let them perform better in sports like basketball. 

Wheelchair users started to modify their chairs in all sorts of ways, and this transformed the chairs from hospital equipment to sporting technology. For example, many people would remove unnecessary parts of the chair that added extra weight. This included things like the push handles at the back of the chair, or even the backrest itself, as some wheelchair users didn’t need it. This meant that these disabled people had a lot of control over the look and function of the chairs they used for sport, and these modifications helped in their everyday life. Other developments also made a huge difference, such as increasing the camber of wheels. This means the wheels were placed at bigger angles to make the chairs turn faster and be easier to use. But many of the chairs used in basketball were folding chairs, meaning lots of weight was being used up by a folding mechanism that wasn’t necessary for sport. This made a number of wheelchair users want to make their own wheelchairs from scratch. The big difference was that they made the chair into a box frame, which did mean the chairs couldn’t fold anymore. But now, chairs were stronger, lighter and more responsive than ever before. Many wheelchair users all over the world started to make these types of chairs – inventions were made in America, Britain and all over Europe. Many of these creatives even started their own companies, making and selling wheelchairs to other athletes. But as sporting chairs got more complicated, suddenly disabled people couldn’t use them for everyday life. They were becoming specialised, which means they were made for one thing in particular, usually sport. For example, as the wheel angle got bigger, sporting chairs became unable to get through regular doorways! 

But this was a good development for these chairs, as now they were more suited than ever for each sport. At first, wheelchair users would have all used the same wheelchair for 

everything. But as technology got more advanced, so did the sport itself. Now, the best athletes need better technology to beat the competition. Eventually, specific wheelchairs for basketball, tennis, rugby and other sports came on the scene, and they are all slightly different. For instance, rugby wheelchairs started out much like the standard hospital devices. But now, there are two types of chairs for different types of players to use, in which some players have longer chairs to grab opponents, whilst others are rounder to fit through small gaps. Rugby chairs are also often made of stronger materials, because in wheelchair rugby…. Well, they hit each other a lot! And the most obvious change is in racing chairs, which are now sleek and long three wheeled machines which you definitely could not use for anything else! This is all to show how far sporting wheelchairs have developed technologically, and how different these sports are today than when they first started. 

As for the future of sporting wheelchairs? Top athletes have their wheelchairs custom made, in order to make sure they can perform to their absolute best. The downside to this is that these chairs are pretty expensive, unfortunately. But others are working to create cheaper chairs for new players across the world, ensuring that more people can benefit from adaptive sports. As well, new types of specialised sporting chairs are being made, like the colourful wheelchair motocross or WCMX wheelchairs used by Lily Rice and made by RMA Sport. 

Back in the 1940s, I don’t think anyone could have imagined how wheelchair technology might have developed, and how different things are now. So while it is tempting to say that these wheelchairs are as good as they’re going to get, maybe it’s too soon to say. 

And if you are interested in having a sporting wheelchair of your own, there are lots of good places to look! Sporting wheelchairs can be expensive, so you might not want to buy one before trying one out. I would recommend getting in touch with any local sports clubs or organisations where you live, as they might have some chairs you can try - from club chairs, second-hand models, or even current players letting you have a go! And to help with cost, there are a number of charitable organisations that can help with funding. Please look for the blog accompanying this video for some links and names of organisations. 

Remember to stay curious and keep pushing hard! 

Video sources 

All visual media sources (Images and video clips) used in the video A (very) brief history of sporting wheelchairs have been used with permission of the rights holder, or fall under fair use/dealing law as outlined by the UK Government (where the content has been made). 

Below, the clips used have been listed chronologically, to allow interested parties to access the original version of the content (where possible). Further, this demonstrates who owns (or is the original uploader) of any content used in the video. The author of the video makes no claim to own the visual (video clips and images) elements of the publication, and is using them for non-commercial and educational purposes, under UK fair use/dealing law. 

  • Clip 1 - Wheelchair Basketball | Canada vs Australia | Men’s preliminaries | Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Uploaded by Paralympic Games, 10th September 2016. 
  • Clip 2 - Wheelchair Rugby Gold Medal Game (USA vs CAN) | Parapan American Games Lima 2019. Uploaded by Team USA, 27th August 2019. 
  • Clip 3 - Akira Kano | Men's downhill sitting | Alpine skiing | Sochi 2014 Paralympics. Uploaded by Paralympic Games, 8th March 2014. 
  • Clip 4 - Athletics | Men's 5000m - T54 Final | Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Uploaded by Paralympic Games, 11th September 2016. 
  • Clip 5 (photo) - Physio.jpg. ©WheelPower British Wheelchair Sport. Used with permission of the National Paralympic Heritage Trust. 
  • Clip 6 (photo) - wheelchair basketball at SM6.JPG. ©WheelPower British Wheelchair Sport. Used with permission of the National Paralympic Heritage Trust. 
  • Clip 7 (photo) - Group.jpg. ©WheelPower British Wheelchair Sport. Used with permission of the National Paralympic Heritage Trust. 
  • Clip 8 (photo) - wheelchair basketball at SM5.JPG - WheelPower Photos. Used with permission of the National Paralympic Heritage Trust. 
  • Clip 9 (photo) - Star & Garter 48.JPG - ©WheelPower Photos. Used with permission of the National Paralympic Heritage Trust. 
  • Clip 10 (photo) - table tennis at SM.JPG - ©WheelPower British Wheelchair Sport. Used with permission of the National Paralympic Heritage Trust. 
  • Clip 11 - 1960 Rome Film - ©Wheelpower - HTY-FA-00138_NPHT_LOW RES_Rome 1960_8mm. Used with permission of the National Paralympic Heritage Trust. 
  • Clip 12 & 13- Stoke Mandeville 1984 Paralympic Games | Highlights. Uploaded by IWAS, 17th March 2021. 
  • Clip 14 - Paralympics Barcelona, finale rolstoelbasketball heren NL-USA (1992). Uploaded by Arie in T Veld, 21st October 2013. 
  • Clip 15-19 - Paralympic Sports A-Z: Wheelchair Rugby. Uploaded by Paralympic Games, 10th June 2016. 
  • Clip 20 - Men's 100m T54 | Final | London 2017 World Para Athletics Championships. Uploaded by Paralympic Games, 14th July 2017. 
  • Clip 21 - Roma Sport Tom First Fitting Session Contour Body Mapping Basketball Wheelchair. Uploaded by RMA Sport, 12th December 2018. 
  • Clip 22-3 - Lily Rice WCMX Roma Sport. Uploaded by RMA Sport, 18th October 2018. 
  • Clip 24 - Wheelchair Basketball | Canada vs Australia | Men’s preliminaries | Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Uploaded by Paralympic Games, 10th September 2016. 
  • Clip 25 - Shingo Kunieda vs Alfie Hewett | US Open 2020 Final. Uploaded by US Open Tennis Championships, 13th September 2020.