Exercise and sport psychology specializes in research and practice within diverse populations of performers, athletes, and exercisers. Of particular interest is expanding our understanding of how sport can serve as a supportive, rehabilitative, as well as competitive mechanism for individuals whom have sustained moderate to severe physical disabilities. An example of sport as a source of empowerment can be found within wheelchair sports. Wheelchair sports can provide individuals who have sustained physical and neurological disabilities opportunities to engage in sports at both competitive and non-competitive levels; such engagement provides its athletes a source of mentorship, rehabilitation, community, and activity.

Last year I became familiar with wheelchair sports during a qualitative study researching wheelchair rugby athletes; I was fortunate to observe the overwhelmingly welcoming environment of wheelchair rugby. To share the world of wheelchair sports and the role of wheelchair sports within the lives of disabled athletes, I interviewed AJ Nanayakkara, a wheelchair rugby athlete who "began playing wheelchair rugby in February of 2002 and has been an active wheelchair athlete ever since" [A. Nanayakkara, personal communication, March 8, 2011]. He doesn't limit himself to wheelchair rugby and states, "I hand cycle, play wheelchair tennis, am a wheelchair racer and certified SCUBA diver.  I have also tried surfing, water skiing, horseback riding, kayaking, and skiing.  I am currently training to become a pilot [A. Nanayakkara, personal communication, March 8, 2011]. As a very busy and active person, AJ is also founder of Global Abilities, a nonprofit organization that:

"Seeks to increase cultural understanding and provide resources to help disabled persons become independent, productive members of society across the globe. By providing education, assistive technology and adaptive tools, and instilling motivation by focusing on a bility, rather than disability, we empower individuals to excel in school, work, recreation, and social life." (Global Abilities, 2011)

Below is our interview where his discusses his life, what brought him to wheelchair sports, and his motivation for starting a nonprofit organization that works to assist individuals domestically and internationally with disabilities.

Is there any one moment that you would describe as a definitive life experience? If so, Why?

Sustaining a spinal cord injury in 1994. I felt incredibly despondent after my injury; I thought I lost so much. [Prior to sustaining his injury] I was living on my own, had a physically demanding job, loved being outdoors, played tennis and ran cross country in high school, did a brief stint in the US Army, and was becoming an accomplished martial artist.  I could no longer do any of these activities, and I thought that everything that made me who I was had been lost forever.  After the initial shock of sustaining my disability, I suffered through almost a decade of suicide attempts and depression.  I thought my disability defined me, and everything I did kept reminding me of what I could no longer do.

As I stumbled my way through the darkness, and then towards gaining acceptance of my disability, I gradually saw that many others with worse injuries were happy... That motivated me to start doing more activities, get reengaged in society, and eventually I became more self-assured and independent.

I do more now than I ever did before my injury, am confident in my ability to overcome barriers, and am the happiest I have ever been. Now, I use my journey from the sense of loss and hopelessness to where I am now to remind myself that my life is whatever I want it to be.  I also use my experiences and what I have learned to motivate others, to help others overcome their own obstacles, and to be the change they want to see in the world.

What does wheelchair sports provide to persons with disabilities?

Learning to live with a disability is difficult, and the physical demands are always challenging.  The body stabilizes, and the disabled person learns to use new techniques and adaptive tools to perform daily tasks.  The physical rehabilitation takes weeks and often months.  The psychological, emotional, and social adjustment to being disabled, however, takes far longer.  This adjustment also is much more difficult to quantify, and disabled individuals usually leave the rehabilitation hospital unprepared to deal with these unseen challenges.  While the hospital setting is relatively safe and accepting, disabled persons often leave the hospital and return home to an environment in which they are the only physically disabled person they know.  Depression, feelings of low self-worth and having an external locus of control, and social isolation are common secondary complications of sustaining a disability.  Wheelchair sports gets people out of the house, helps them become more active and physically conditioned.  Not only does participating in recreation help people with disabilities combat physical complications such as weight gain and muscle atrophy, wheelchair sports helps individuals continue their psychosocial adjustment to becoming disabled.  The social support they receive from their peers and the sense of accomplishment they gain from learning a new challenging activity help build confidence, return to an internal locus of control, and motivate disabled persons to take on more challenges.  Gradually, wheelchair sports help participants become more active in their communities. 

AJ and wife Kelly in Lucerne, Switzerland during their summer European backpacking adventure

Why wheelchair rugby?

While undergoing rehab after my injury in 1994, several therapists and nurses suggested that I join the wheelchair rugby team.  As I was adjusting to the shock of my injury, I dismissed what they said, went home after four months of rehab, and promptly forgot everything I heard about rugby and anything else associated with wheelchair sports... In 2002, while I was in the waiting room waiting to see my doctor, I saw a flyer about an upcoming wheelchair rugby tournament.  Although I still felt depressed and seldom ventured out of my house, I decided to check out the tournament.  For the first time since sustaining my SCI (spinal cord injury), I saw individuals in wheelchairs playing a sport.

Wheelchair rugby is a fast-paced, full-contact, action-packed game!  Seeing rugby for the first time intrigued me enough to begin attending weekly practices.  As I learned the game over the first several years, I became more physically fit and independent... I soon began playing other sports, became a peer mentor for other individuals with disabilities, began teaching healthcare students, eventually returned to and graduated college, and earned a great job.  More importantly, my experience with rugby helped me to realize that my depression was not caused by my spinal cord injury.  My negative outlook on life was caused by my reaction to my disability.  This awakening showed me that I was in control of not just what I achieve, but how I interacted with and responded to my environment.  My self-confidence pushed me to become socially active, start dating, and eventually meet the love of my life, which I married last summer.

What are your goals for the future? Why these goals?

I recently got married and started Global Abilities.  My goals for the future are mainly to be an exceptional husband, grow as an individual and become closer to my wife, and experience the world together.  In my professional life, I want to use Global Abilities as a vehicle to educate disabled individuals and general population about the power that we all have within ourselves, and to help communities fully integrate disabled persons into society.

Define Global Abilities

In a world of over 6.5 billion people, approximately 600 million individuals live with disabilities. These range from developmental impairments to profound physical disabilities that require the use wheelchairs and other devices to live on a day-to-day basis.  The combination of physical limitations, psychological adjustment to living with a disability, and lack of community understanding and resources have a profound impact in how persons with disabilities view themselves and their capacity to live enriched meaningful lives.

Why start Global Abilities?

I had an incredibly difficult time adjusting to my injury.  The resources around me helped me learn to drive, participate in recreation, and return to school and work.  The satisfaction, confidence, and independence I gained from participating in these activities helped me appreciate my life, become socially active, and eventually date and get married.  However, most disabled individuals in the world lack awareness of or access to the resources that helped me.  I started Global Abilities to help other disabled individuals reintegrate into their communities and live full, active, contented lives. 

To find out additional information about AJ Nanayakkara and his organization, Global Abilities, visit his website: www.globalabilities.org


Special thanks to AJ Nanayakkara for sharing his insights and story.




Global Abilities Foundation. (2011). Global Abilities. Retrieved from http://www.globalabilities.org/





About the Author

Leeja Carter

Leeja Carter is a doctoral student in Exercise and Sport Psychology at Temple University and a Psychology Instructor at Rutgers University.

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