WAUSAU, Wis. (AP) — Matt Hass has spent a lot of time on the ice.
That’s a fairly common statement for the average 15-year-old student-athlete in central Wisconsin.
But much of Matt’s ice time has come in his hockey sled, and now in his wheelchair as part of the Wausau West curling team.
Matt was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that caused the vertebrae to form improperly around his spinal cord. He has used a wheelchair for most of his life.
“It’s been great from the standpoint of having a different level of cooperation,” West curling coach Jim Wendling said of Matt’s participation on the team. “Curling is about cooperation anyway. For Matt, it’s been about his teammates adjusting to what he needs and him adjusting to them.”
Wendling said that from his perspective, the other players have treated Matt as just another teammate.
While Matt’s story is inspiring, it brings to light a greater issue of providing equal opportunities for students with disabilities.
Kristi Roth, an associate professor of adapted physical education at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, said she has seen many positive changes during her 20 years as an educator.
“I have seen it growing,” she told Daily Herald Media. “I have a student coaching at John Muir (Middle School) in Wausau who has a visually impaired student who wants to play basketball. He asked me, ‘What kind of accommodations can be made?’”
Last January, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued a letter to schools reminding them of their obligations to provide equal opportunities for students with disabilities. However, the adjustments made for the disabled student cannot alter the competition for the rest of the students.
This creates the challenge for teachers and coaches, which is what Roth teaches her students.
“You can’t make generalizations,” she said. “Each person functions differently. You have to figure out ways to help each person.”
For example, a school can provide a basketball with a beeper or bell inside to assist a visually impaired student. At the same time, his teammates can develop keywords to let him know they are open and where they are on the floor. None of these adjustments would alter the game for the other players, Roth said.
However, if a student required the hoop to be lowered from its standard height, that would not be an adjustment the school would be expected to make because it fundamentally changes the game for the other athletes, she said.
In Matt’s case, he goes onto the ice in his wheelchair and uses a pole to propel the rock when he throws. One of his teammates will stand behind his chair to keep him from rolling backward during the throw.
“There really is not that much we have to do differently for him,” Wendling said. “He has the pole with the release. And he has to clean the tires on his chair before he can go on the ice.”
Matt approached Wendling about joining the team in the fall at the school’s freshmen welcome night. Wendling, who has coached the team for 12 years, said he immediately started to figure out how he could make it happen.
“I really didn’t know how it would work,” he said. “But, if I have a student who has flexibility issues, I would go to people who know how to help with that.”
So, Wendling contacted Steve Brown with the Madison Curling Club. Brown coaches the U.S. Paralympic curling team. He invited Wendling and Matt to Madison to spend some time on the ice with the team and learn how to help Matt play the game.
“I had seen some teams with all disabled players, but didn’t see any that were mixed,” Wendling said. “Those were questions that were asked in Madison. After that weekend, I didn’t have any reservations about Matt being on the team.”
Well, not quite.
“I was worried about whether he would love it,” Wendling said, referring to Matt’s seven years of sled hockey. “Once he got throwing, I didn’t have any doubts.”
Now that he’s a part of the team, Matt can’t get enough.
“It’s been fun working with the team,” Matt said. “They’ve been helpful with a lot of stuff, standing behind the chair when I throw.”
For his parents — Todd and Sandy — seeing Matt with the team fulfills one of their goals for him.
“This is what we’ve been striving for,” Todd said. “We’ve always wanted him to be independent and as self-assured as possible. We want him to go off to college, to live life to the fullest and not be limited in any way.”
The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association currently sponsors one adaptive sport. In 2010, wheelchair events at the state track and field meet were added as an exhibition. The next year, those events — 100, 200, 400, 800, 1,600 and shot put — became official events, said Marcy Thurwachter with the WIAA.
The response to the addition was nothing but positive, she said.
“It started with one athlete from one school,” Thurwachter said. “I think we were very aggressive in developing the program, and it did pick up interest quickly.”
In 2013, seven wheelchair athletes from as many schools competed at the state meet. There were 13 competitors in 2012.
Thurwachter said she will be interested to see how many athletes there are this year because several seniors graduated. Matt intends be to one of them this spring.
“I’ve raced before in my chair,” he said, “but never in a track chair.”
Thurwachter said that while track currently is the only dedicated wheelchair sport, the organization has been helping to get disabled athletes involved in mainstream sports for years.
“The problem with team sports is finding the athletes to field a team,” she said. “The primary reason for the wheelchair track is because wheeling and running are so different. Many disabled athletes are streamlined into the mainstream. They qualify just like any other athlete.”