The History of Wheelchair Games

By July 28, 2017 No Comments

The National Veterans Wheelchair Games are an outgrowth of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ historic involvement in wheelchair sports. Wheelchair sports had their beginning in the aftermath of World War II, when young disabled Veterans began playing wheelchair basketball in VA hospitals throughout the United States. Interest in wheelchair basketball soon spread to other sports such as track and field, bowling, swimming, and archery, spawning the formation of several associations devoted to new and innovative wheelchair sports.

While the participation of paralyzed and other disabled Veterans continued to flourish during the intervening years, it was not until 1980, when VA established a Recreation Therapy Service, that VA’s efforts brought about an enhanced awareness of the rehabilitative value of wheelchair athletics. Since then, VA therapists have used wheelchair sports as a therapeutic tool for treating Veterans with disabilities.

The first National Veterans Wheelchair Games were held in 1981, the “International Year of Disabled Persons,” at the VA Medical Center in Richmond, Va. That year, 74 veterans from 14 states competed in sports ranging from table tennis and billiards, to swimming and weightlifting. Those first Games established an enduring trait that has characterized the event ever since — a strong sense of common identity and camaraderie among the participants. The hundreds of Veterans who choose to compete in the Games each year demonstrate their continuing popularity.

By 1985, the growing size, complexity, and resources needed for the Games presented a daunting challenge to VA medical centers hosting the program. Recognizing that most of the athletes were paralyzed Veterans, the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) offered to become a co-sponsor. To help obtain resources needed to host this national event, PVA recruited corporations to join in support of the Games. Since 1985, PVA’s corporate sponsor program has helped the Games grow, both in number of competitors as well as variety of sports offered.

In 1987, 12 British military Veterans were invited to participate in the Games and a team from Great Britain has come every year since. After that first year, the British athletes formed a new disabled sports group — The British Ex-Services Wheelchair Sports Association. This group extended the philosophy behind the National Veterans Wheelchair Games to the rest of the world, hosting International Veterans Wheelchair Games in Great Britain in 1994, 1996, and 1999.

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