Adaptive Sports Program gaining momentum at U-M

Dr. Okanlami and Brian Heyman

By Andrew Moser
Marketing Communications Specialist

The past year has seen the initiation of a top-flight adaptive sports program at the University of Michigan that is breaking down barriers - physically, educationally, and socially.

Led by Dr. Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, an assistant professor of Family Medicine and Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, the U-M Adaptive Sports Program is leveraging community interest in adaptive sports with athletics and academics to create something truly special.

This isn’t the first time efforts have been made towards adaptive sports or inclusive recreation, particularly wheelchair basketball, at U-M. A pediatric wheelchair team, the Rollverines, was started through UMAISE, the U-M Adaptive and Inclusive Sports Experience, and competes in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association.  

Dr. Okanlami started hosting drop-in sessions at the Intermural Sports building before relocating to the North Campus Recreational Building, and in 2020 they will move to their new home, The Sports Coliseum. A grant from Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion provided them with the sport wheelchairs needed so additional people could play.

Dr. Okanlami stresses that everyone is welcome to play.

“One of the major parts that distinguishes our program from other programs around the country is we feel it’s inappropriate to exclude others from this adaptive sports program,” he said. “While this is a program for people with disabilities, I don’t want to exclude people without disabilities from being able to participate. This is something where the whole purpose was to be inclusive and to invite everybody to play.”

Sophomore Brian Heyman discovered the program after seeing people playing wheelchair basketball on Palmer Courts during the Rec Sports Expo his freshman year. After playing a couple of games and attending drop-in sessions, he was hooked. He kept in touch with Amy St. Amour, a major gifts officer in Family Medicine, and wanted to become involved in helping grow the program.

Now he serves on the leadership team of the newly formed Adaptive Sports Interest Group.

For Heyman, who is studying Movement Science, his interests lie in more than just basketball.

“I’m on the pre-med track right now, but sports have always been a huge part of my life. A really good medium to that is adaptive sports because it’s combining both medical technology and inclusion with sports,” he said. “It helps me with being able to interact with people from all different levels of ability, from all different walks of life, and it helps me get experience around people that may need some medical assistance or just assistance in general.

Drop-in games for basketball are held bi-weekly on Tuesdays from 6-8 p.m. at the NCRB (2375 Hubbard Rd.) The final two dates of the year are held on November 8 and 22 and December 3 and 17.

This year’s goal is to continue growing the program both on and off the athletic field.

According to Dr. Okanlami, student groups were awarded mini-grants through the Office of Health, Equity, and Inclusion in order to purchase sled hockey equipment and adaptive camping equipment, including a trail chair allowing for individuals to go off-road.

It’s not just wheelchair basketball that is taking off. Wheelchair tennis is gaining just as much popularity, with weekly sessions for competitive college athletes and community members taking place on Wednesdays at the varsity tennis facility. Dr. Okanlami noted two athletes will be competing for Michigan in the national championships in Orlando, Florida, next year.

In the classroom, he has made connections with Dr. Dale Ulrich, a professor of Applied Exercise Science and Movement Science and the director of the Center on Physical Activity and Health in Pediatric Disabilities. The goal is to have an offering where students could do a practicum by attending adaptive sports practices or competitions.

“There are other faculty in the School of Kinesiology we have been interacting with to see how we can make this a more consistent thing so we can allow students to benefit,” Dr. Okanlami said. “Then in Medicine, we’re also demonstrating there are practitioners that will give care to adaptive athletes. We’re also in early conversations about creating a curriculum for adaptive sports medicine, either fellowship or postdoc.”

They are also in early conversations about creating an adaptive sports/adaptive sports medicine curriculum, a fellowship, and a post-postdoctoral position for research dedicated to adaptive sports and adaptive sports medicine.

Ultimately, Dr. Okanlami wants to see the program grow to include track, men’s and women’s tennis, and a competitive wheelchair basketball team. He is currently in touch with six recruits, two of which won singles and doubles competitions in men’s and women’s wheelchair tennis tournaments in Alabama and Chicago. He also met with a promising track athlete from Indiana during his official visit to campus this past weekend.

“The big vision for this is creating scholarships for student-athletes to come and get an education, to continue playing their sport, and to demonstrate to the institution, the surrounding community, and to the world that there are student-athletes with disabilities that are just as competitive and just as smart as our athletes here on campus, and brand adaptive sports in a way that Michigan can be a leader and the best, just like in all other things we do,” he said. “We can be that at adaptive sports as well.”

“It’s something that leverages what Michigan sees as important, a world-class education, and the power of sports. Then we have Engineering, Kinesiology, Public Health, Social Work, Medicine, and all the strengths of the University of Michigan who would build this program to then show that we not only support diversity in our programming, that we do in recruiting faculty or students,” he continued. “But then we’ll look at this program and we’ll look at the fact that you are bringing in students with disabilities that are going to go off and be something in the world.”

Okanlami, a former All-American athlete, graduated from the U-M Medical School in 2011 before acquiring a spinal cord injury in 2013.

He knows the feeling of being able to reduce health and educational disparities for individuals with disabilities.

“When you acknowledge the fact that these are students that would have otherwise been able to come, but chose not to because we weren’t accessible or inclusive with respect to their demographic, we aren’t being equitable,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to say this isn’t just the right thing to do because you’re taking care of everyone, it’s the right thing to do, especially right now, given that we say we [U-M] have a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

To learn more about the U-M Adaptive Sports Program, visit