On Friday afternoons, on a basketball court in UC Berkeley’s Recreational Sports Facility, a team of students playing soccer using only power wheelchairs and a 13-inch ball hopes to help revolutionize the way the world views disability and athletics.
Students with and without disabilities are learning to play power soccer together in a two-unit course sponsored by education professor Derek Van Rheenan called “Disability and Sport.” Power soccer is the latest inclusive competitive sport to be offered in the history of the Berkeley course, which also provides instruction in goalball and golf. In addition to time in the gym, the class meets on Tuesday evenings to study and discuss disability and sports.
Players maneuver a giant soccer ball across the court with the help of guards on the fronts of motorized wheelchairs. Some students have learned to spin their chairs around, building up power to smack the ball hard. Instruction in power soccer and goalball is done in partnership with the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program.
While power soccer exists elsewhere in the country, only at Berkeley is it played by disabled and non-disabled students together, says graduate student Matt Grigorieff, who is co-president of the Disabled Students Union and student founder of Berkeley’s Athletics for All program.
“We’re on the edge here at Berkeley of creating a movement that’s different from the parallel model of either everyone on a team being disabled, or everyone not being disabled,” adds Grigorieff. “This power soccer team is an example of universal design in sports, where everyone is included, everyone is a friend, everyone can play.”
Nico Clothier, a political science major, says being in the class has given him the chance to play soccer again, following a spinal cord injury.
“I look forward to this class at the end of the week, and it’s not just another class,” he says, adding that he taught his able-bodied classmates how to operate the motorized wheelchairs the class provides.
Jennifer Ibarra, a third-year student in the class who coaches young children with disabilities on weekends, says, “Everyone should have the opportunity to play a sport. Power soccer is fun, and we all get along really well. We need to do more for our disabled students on campus.”
Grigorieff takes it further.
“Like with goalball, where we started as a rag-tag group of people wearing pads, but became the nation’s first competitive goalball team for the blind,” he says, “we want to spread the idea of forming a power soccer team to other colleges and universities in the U.S. as well. Right now we’re the only one.”
“And inclusive sports opportunities shouldn’t only be happening at the college level,” he adds, “but in K- through-12.“