Advocate Eli Wolff: ‘The Disabled Athlete Is Still Siloed and Segregated’

Eli A. Wolff did not let a stroke at age two stop him from participating in sports in high school and college and becoming a world-class soccer player. He has built his career on advocating for athletes with disabilities. Knowledge@Wharton High School sat down recently with Wolff to discuss opportunities for disabled athletes and how the stereotypes that confront them can be broken down.Read More

by Diana Drake

Eli A. Wolff had a stroke when he was two years old, but he did not let that trauma stop him from pursuing sports. He played on sports teams as a teen at Milton Academy in Milton, Mass., graduating in 1995, and then in college at Brown University. He was a member of the United States Paralympic Soccer Team in the 1996 and 2004 Paralympic Games [a multi-sport event for athletes with disabilities], and a member of the National Team from 1995 to 2004. Wolff has built a career on advocating for athletes with disabilities. His work in research at Brown in the last decade since he graduated, and at the Institute for Human Centered Design, a Boston-based organization that advances opportunities for people of all abilities. It has been multi-faceted, and has led to more and more people and organizations understanding the plight of the disabled athlete.

Wolff was at Wharton recently for the Ivy Sports Symposium and talked to Knowledge@Wharton High School about his experience as a disabled athlete and the issues that confront this segment of the population.

Knowledge@Wharton High School: While most people are familiar with the Paralympic Games and the Special Olympics, what other opportunities exist for disabled athletes today?

Eli A. Wolff: The whole idea is to create different settings in sports for people with disabilities, whether it be competing in able-bodied settings or disability-specific settings. I have been passionate, even at a young age, about inclusion for everyone, and have seen it become a bit better over time as people understand.

When I was at Brown, I had a really good coach, and we were able to figure things out, but it is not always like that. For so long, people with disabilities who wanted to play sports were looked at as being on the sidelines — like being on the disabled list on a Major League Baseball team. It would seem like once a day, someone on ESPN would use the term “retard” or “gimpy,” and not even be conscious of what that meant. When I was in college, I took courses on sports, but none included disabilities.

But since 2006, the United Nations treaties on individual rights have included those with disabilities, and there are even sections pertaining to sports, so it is in people’s consciousness now.

KWHS: Is there an upsurge in participation? Where might it be coming from?

Wolff: I worked on the Supreme Court case with Casey Martin (the disabled pro golfer who sued to be able to use a cart while playing). And the story of Oscar Pistorius, the amputee who uses artificial legs to run, has encouraged more disabled people to try sports.

A lot of the returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan have been participants, too, which has raised awareness. But the disabled athlete is still siloed and segregated. We have come far, but still have far to go.

We sometimes make comparisons to the Negro Leagues and to how women’s sports used to be. We have women’s sports because it is one way to level the playing field. Sometimes women can compete with men, just as sometimes disabled athletes can compete in able-bodied sports, but we need to be more inclusive in sports in general, and that often means creating different platforms for the disabled.

KWHS: Is there some commercial way of enhancing this? Are disabled athletes a market for anyone?

Wolff: Yes, I have worked with Nike in advertising, for instance. There are 58 million people in America with some sort of disability, so that is a big market. There are estimates that 20% of video game users have disabilities, and yet there is not one video game associated with disabilities in sports.

The government, though, has started supporting veterans who play disabled sports, and there are relatives and friends of all these people who follow them now. With the aging population, there are more and more people with some kind of disability, and they have played sports their whole lives, so they create a market, too.

KWHS: What is the future for the disabled in sports?

Wolff: I think that young people are more conscious of people with disabilities and what they can do, so that is a good sign for inclusion. When we can break down those stereotypes, we will definitely improve things. The Paralympic movement is really accepted by the people who run the Olympics, and the more that is promoted, the more stereotypes will change. There are even colleges with wheelchair basketball teams now.

The whole idea behind this, though, is that no one should be invisible. We should be able to see the athletic potential in everyone.

Related Links

Conversation Starters

Eli Wolff says, “I think that young people are more conscious of people with disabilities and what they can do, so that is a good sign for inclusion.” Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not? Use examples to illustrate your argument.

This article was published before Oscar Pistorius’s legal issues. Do you think his trial and conviction have elevated the discussion in any way about disabled athletes, merely by the fact that he became so high profile? Check out the “related links” if you need more details about his story.

What is the Institute for Human-centered Design? Research it under “Related Links.” What is its purpose and how has it brought attention to the plight of the disabled athlete?

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