International Disability Sport Outreach Program

group photo
Jean Driscoll, far left, with the Ghanaian athletes, flanked in the back row by Dr. Timothy Nugent, Ghanaian Coach Caesar Dzikunu, Dean Tanya Gallagher, and U of I President B. Joseph White.

The International Disability Sport Outreach Program was established by the College of Applied Health Sciences to support social change in countries where the opportunities for persons with disabilities have not previously existed. By encouraging participation in sports, transformational changes are possible not only for athletes but all individuals with disabilities. The program began with Jean Driscoll, associate director of development in the College of Applied Health Sciences, when she recognized a need for international support after teaching wheelchair track camps in Ghana, West Africa. In 2007, thanks to gifts from Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and the University of Illinois President's Office, she was able to bring athletes from Ghana back to the U.S. to train with the University of Illinois wheelchair track and road racing team. To ensure that these efforts will continue to grow, the College of Applied Health Sciences has established a fund to support the International Disability Sport Outreach Program within the College's Center on Health, Aging, and Disability.

Project Provides Wheelchairs and Instruction to Ghanaian Athletes

By Jean Driscoll
Associate Director of Development and Alumni Relations
College of Applied Health Sciences

Ghanaian Athletes
Jessica Galli of the University of Illinois Road Racing team trains with members of the Ghanaian wheelchair track team.

In 2001, I was contacted by the organization Joni and Friends and asked to travel to Ghana, West Africa to teach a wheelchair track camp. Joni and Friends (JAF) has a program called "Wheels for the World" which began in 1994. They collect wheelchairs across the country and send them to one of seven prisons where inmates restore them to like-new condition. Then the wheelchairs are distributed in countries where they are scarce commodities such as Vietnam, China, Romania, Ghana and several others. Over the years, a few used racing chairs were donated as well. JAF asked if I would teach a wheelchair track camp and show the people with disabilities how to use them.

On the first day of the camp in 2001, there were people who limped into the stadium, walked in on crutches, or used a wheelchair they received from JAF. (Of the 32 people who showed up, maybe six had wheelchairs. There are no wheelchair manufacturers in Ghana.) I wasn't prepared to see people crawling into the stadium, though. They wore sandals on their hands and had calluses on their knees that looked like knee pads. For many of them, the track camp we held was the first time they were ever in a wheelchair and it was their only opportunity to be up off the ground. In Ghana, if you have a disability, it is believed that you are cursed by God. Families reject people with disabilities and either hide them in a room for the rest of their lives or send them to the street. They are considered as dogs.

The opportunity to engage in sport, however, is changing these attitudes. After the track camp in 2001, I returned to Ghana to teach a camp in 2002. In 2003, I wanted to provide new sportschairs to some of the up-and-coming wheelchair athletes with whom I was working. I teamed up with five Urbana-Champaign Rotary Clubs and also solicited funds from across the country. Rotary International provided a matching funds grant and we raised $60,000. Eight wheelchair athletes and two coaches came that year. For the first time in their lives, the wheelchair athletes received their very own everyday wheelchairs and also custom-made racing chairs. They trained in the U.S. for ten days and continued their training in Ghana. The next year was an Olympic/Paralympic year in Athens, Greece. Prior to 2004, Ghana had never sent anyone to the Paralympic Games. Two of the athletes who came to the U.S. in '03, however, became the first Ghanaians (pronounced Ga-nay-enz) to represent their country in the Paralympics. One of the athletes, Ajara, says now her family talks to her.

Ghanaian coach
Ghanaian coach Caesar Dzikunu instructs a member of his wheelchair track team during a joint training session with the University of Illinois Road Racing team.

This year, I received a generous corporate gift from Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines along with funds from the President's Office that enabled me to bring five wheelchair athletes and one coach from Ghana back to the U.S. for new racing chairs and additional training. They spent time in Atlanta getting their custom-made chairs built followed by two weeks in Champaign training with the University of Illinois wheelchair track team. While in Champaign, they spoke to members of the Savoy Rotary Club and had lunch with University of Illinois President B. Joseph White.

As a result of this project, societal attitudes in Ghana toward people with disabilities are beginning to change. One year ago, the government passed a law that children with disabilities should receive an education. Individuals with disabilities are slowly beginning to be treated with more respect.

For more information about the International Disability Sport Outreach Fund and opportunities for donor involvement, please contact Jean Driscoll at jdris@illinois.edu (217-244-0270).

About Jean Driscoll

Jean Driscoll

University of Illinois alumna Jean Driscoll (AB'91 LAS; MS'93 AHS) is an eight-time champion of the Boston Marathon and has won silver medals in the 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympic Games. She has served as a corporate spokesperson for several major corporations, including Ocean Spray, United Airlines, and others. Jean is currently the associate director of development and alumni relations in the College of Applied Health Sciences.