Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 11:33:12 AM CST

Top Stories

Jason Peterson/Medill

Hundreds of disabled youth compete at Claddagh Regional Wheelchair Basketball Tournament at St. Xavier University.

Adaptive sports opens door for disabled, visually impaired athletes

by Jason Peterson
Jan 24, 2013

JP photo

Jason Peterson/MEDILL

Serena Jaros, 16, participates in adaptive sports as a way to stay in shape and develop social and teamwork skills.

Sporting hipster glasses and a stylish emo-shag cut, 16-year-old Serena Jaros is a paradigm – some would say paragon – of the 21st-century teenager. She’s confident, smart as a whip and her dream job would be a foreign policy adviser to the POTUS.

Jaros runs track, plays basketball and says swimming is the best way to get fit. Her cell phone is practically an amorphous extension of her right hand. She prefers to spend her savings on iPods and laptops instead of designer jeans. She could probably give you a better tour of Chicago than the mayor, but wonders why her parents haven’t bought her a car yet. She’s also got a wicked wit.

One glance at Jaros and all perceptions immediately change: She's paralyzed from the waist down and gets around primarily in a wheelchair.

Jaros speaks nonchalantly of her past as if everyone shares a similar childhood story. She contracted poliomyelitis as an infant in Ethiopia, where she was born. As fate would have it, the nation within the Horn of Africa would announce an eradication of polio just two years later.

Shortly after her parents’ deaths, Jaros was whisked away into her new home in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., just over the Illinois line, along with two new adopted siblings, one from Bulgaria and another child from Ethiopia, saving her from a merry-go-round of foster homes in Africa.

Within her first three years on Earth, Jaros had succeeded in beating incredible odds that most Americans don’t face in a lifetime.

“It was pure luck,” Jaros said, shrugging.

As she grew, Jaros learned to kick luck to the curb and began to adapt to her surroundings. She discovered that she loved to learn and she was good at it. Jaros excels in her classes at Tremper High School where she enjoys a couple of perks: She and three of her friends may leave class early to beat the hallway rush, and she skips out on gym class because they don’t offer adaptive sports that accommodate her wheelchair.

The downside is that she feels she never developed the social and team-building skills by interacting through sports. On many occasions, she remembers looking out the window of her home and watching her peers at play.

“When I was little, I would hate it because people would run and jump outside and I wanted to do that so bad and I couldn’t do it,” Jaros said. “I missed all the physical activities that you can do.”

Jaros admits she was never the tomboy type, even if she had been able-bodied. Of course, motivations change when girls reach their teenage years.

“I saw this really obese girl in a wheelchair and I promised myself I would never get fat,” she said. “In a wheelchair, it’s so much easier to get fat.”

That’s where the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association comes in. The not-for-profit organization based in Lake Forest provides more than 30 competitive and recreational adaptive sports programs for approximately 400 youth and 200 adults with physical or visual impairments.

GLASA sponsors several tournaments each year, including Saturday’s Claddagh Regional Wheelchair Basketball Tournament at Saint Xavier University. Jaros participated on one of 12 teams in attendance, with each team playing three games in a round-robin tournament.

Tom Daily, who has served as program director at GLASA for seven years, coached Jaros’ team. As an able-bodied basketball player who also plays competitive wheelchair basketball, he said the experience of playing either sport yields similar results.

“The intensity of playing a sport, the accuracy and the team camaraderie – it’s all the same,” he said. “There are so many people that don’t know who we are and what we’re about. But if we can get them to just come and take a look at it and try it, we’ve got them hooked.”

Jaros gets a kick out of the games – not so much the practices – and said she feels a sense of independence and empowerment through playing sports that she had never encountered before.

Like everyone else, Jaros has her moments of doubt. A pet peeve of hers is when new acquaintances mollycoddle as if to suggest she is incapable of performing simple tasks.

“When they first meet me, they fall over their feet to help me,” Jaros said. “It ticks me off a little bit, but then I realize they’re usually just trying to help me out and they don’t understand.

“But sometimes I do need help,” she continued. “I can’t reach a lot of stuff, obviously. I totally appreciate it when they help because I’m really a lazy person. I just like to prove to strangers what I can do.”

Jaros had few tales in which people blatantly ignored her circumstances. People are more than considerate. And it’s certainly possible to be “too nice,” she said.

Jaros spent one summer working the lines at Six Flags Great America when a young blonde woman approached her.

“I’m sure she was totally innocent, but she was like, ‘I really admire you doing this,’” Jaros said. “And I said, ‘Doing what?’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, getting a job and being out there.’

That just made me feel like crap,” she added. “I’m like, ‘What am I supposed to do? We’ve gotta make money somehow.’ The billionaire uncle didn’t pan out.”

When most people hear the word, “adapter,” they think of the gadget that converts a machine to a new use for which it wasn’t originally intended, like the kind tourists take to Europe when they want to plug their American-made hairdryers or Mac computers into foreign sockets.

Few people consider the other definition of the word: A person who adapts.

Where are these “human adapters,” you might ask? That’s the tricky part. By definition, these people are too busy assimilating themselves into their natural environment for others to notice, like chameleons blending into metropolitan jungles.

Jaros’ humor is one of many attributes that has allowed her to be an adapter in today’s evolving world. Plug her into any aspect of life and she not only survives, she comes away learning lessons that are applicable to the able-bodied and disabled alike.

“Everyone has their problems,” she said. “It would be stupid to just give up. Emotionally, I don’t think my life lacks anything because I’m in a wheelchair. The biggest challenge is to not let people’s perception of you change your perception of yourself.”