This post is part of the series 14 Questions
, featuring interviews with disability advocates regarding their work and insights into the Complex Rehab Technology (CRT) industry. In our latest post, Numotion Director of Advocacy Strategy, Justin Richardson interviews Ryan Martin, Founder and President of The Ryan Martin Foundation
Richardson: You discovered wheelchair basketball at age 12. Beyond the obvious physical benefits tied to involvement with athletics, what other benefits do you believe involvement in sports has on the lives of adaptive athletes?
Martin: Aside from the physical benefits, sports has increased my confidence, my ability to communicate, lead and work within diverse groups. These skills have allowed me to be successful beyond athletics.
Richardson: Have you tried/been involved with other adaptive sports or have you focused solely on basketball? If you tried other sports, what were they?
Martin: I grew up in a big family and always played sports (e.g., wiffle ball or football) although basketball was the sport I explored and excelled at (it was my first love). As an elite level athlete you incorporate cross training philosophies into your development. You incorporate track workouts to increase speed or lift weights for augmented strength. To make it at a professional level the sport becomes your job so the majority of your focus needs to be on what makes you a better basketball player (or whatever sport one choose). As you get older the challenge becomes recovery. How can you play at a high level more often? The science and discipline of high level athletics is fascinating.
Richardson: What is it about basketball that has continuously led you back to the court?
Martin: As a kid growing up with a disability it was the first thing that I remember got me noticed for the right reasons. Instead of being “the kid in the wheelchair” or “the kid with no legs” I was Ryan “the kid who can play basketball!” It gave me a sense of purpose and belonging at a time in my life when I sorely needed one. As I progressed in the sport, the competitive desire to get better and reach my potential was always my driving fuel.
Richardson: You spent 10 seasons in Europe playing professional wheelchair basketball. To most, professional wheelchair sports in the United States seems like a pipe dream. What about European culture allows for the type of environment that would support professional wheelchair sports? What would need to happen to allow for the presence of professional wheelchair sports in the United States?
Martin: Over the last several years this has been the most common question I’ve been asked. In Europe a lot of sports, including adaptive sports, are financed by government entities, major corporate sponsors or successful organizations. They’ve found a way in these various countries to market the sport, finance their leagues and create a fan base. That’s the one thing I miss about playing in Europe vs. the U.S.A., the fan support was significantly better. The level of sport is there. My current team, the New York Rollin’ Knicks, is as good of a roster as anywhere I’ve played. The product from a sport perspective is there but no one has found a business model to make it successful. Also there is a tokenistic level of respect given to adaptive sports all too often in the U.S. My hope is that down the road wheelchair basketball can become professional here in the U.S. Much like when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball it changed a lot of things for African Americans. The ripple effect of a pro league here in the U.S. could create great change and move towards more inclusion in other spaces.
Richardson: As far as accessibility is concerned, what European countries did you find to be the most accessible and why? The least accessible?
Martin: When you travel you have to do your homework about accessibility and advocate for yourself. Overall I think the places I’ve lived in Europe (Spain and France) were reasonably accessible, but not quite to the standard of here in the states (post ADA). I found people in Europe very eager to accommodate persons with a disability in situations where access was an issue.
Richardson: Considering limited in-person access to custom athletic equipment manufacturer representatives, seating and positioning decisions for recreational athletes are often left up to the athlete. At best, there may be input from teammates and/or fellow competitors. If all athletes had access to a seating and mobility specialist trained in fitting sports chairs, do you think the quality of competition in adaptive athletics would improve?
Martin: Yes. Getting the right equipment for the athlete is so very important. Often times sports chairs are passed down from athlete to athlete. When an athlete makes that next step to being more competitive and gets their own equipment it brings the whole level of the sport up. There is a strong need for affordable equipment that is functional at the grass roots level. I hate to see when cost is a barrier to a young athlete getting their start!
Richardson: Speaking of seating and positioning, as a lifelong wheelchair user, what advice would you give to someone who is either newly diagnosed or injured and is in the process of obtaining a chair for the first time?
Martin: My advice is do your research and speak with end users. Someone with experience can get you past a lot of those first hurdles. Get the equipment that gives you the greatest sense of independence. The ideal chair/equipment will fit you well, get you active in the things you want to do, and seem like an extension of your body.
Richardson: You’re currently acting as a consultant with the NCAA on their adaptive sports model. What is the current state of collegiate wheelchair sports and where do you hope to see adaptive collegiate athletics in 10 years?
Martin: There are many colleges/universities exploring adaptive sports programs on their respective campuses. I would like students with disabilities to be given the same opportunity that their able-bodied peers are offered. Our colleges and universities in 2018 are places where we should foster inclusion, awareness, diversity and promote equality. Including adaptive sports is long overdue and just the next step in that journey. There are parallels that can be made to women’s collegiate athletes, pre Title 9. I would like to see more students who are being denied these opportunities to reach out to the Office of Civil Rights and create some precedent in this space. My hope over the next several years is that we see more programs emerging to the point where it becomes a normal part of the fabric of campuses around the country!
Richardson: You recently had the opportunity to attend ESPN’s ESPY Awards in Los Angeles along with Numotion team members Scott Ritchotte and Mike Mowry. On a national stage, do you believe adaptive sports and the athletes playing those sports are being given the credit they deserve?
Martin: Yes and no. Yes because we are starting to see the inclusion of adaptive athletes in events like the ESPY’s and move coverage of sporting events like the Paralympics on NBC. No doubt great strides have been made in this areas and there are some tremendous advocates fighting to increase awareness. I’d like to see more coverage of adaptive sports beyond recognition once a year at an award show or every four years on NBC. Progress has been made but the journey is far from compete!
Richardson: How has sport chair technology changed in your lifetime? Has it outpaced or stayed on level ground with advancements in everyday chair technology?
Martin: I remember the first chairs I had (sports and everyday) were big, heavy and clunky. The technology has drastically improved. Chairs are lighter, smaller, more stream line and more of an extension of the end user. No question the advancements in everyday chairs have made them lighter and allow for more independence. Advancements in the technology of sports chairs have made them lighter, faster, more responsive and allowed for the overall sports to improve.
Richardson: In the United States, sports chairs are not typically covered by insurance. What advice would you give to the family of a youth athlete who wants to participate but may be struggling to afford the cost of equipment?
Martin: Research grants or join established programs that can provide you a chair to get started in. Challenged Athlete Foundation (CAF) does a great job providing grants for adaptive athletes and there are other ones out there as well.
Richardson: The Ryan Martin Foundation helps youth players, adults, and soldiers living with new disabilities become better athletes through various camp opportunities throughout the year. I imagine each opportunity is rewarding in its own way. How is each type of camp different from the other?
Martin: Each camp is unique because you always have new athletes joining camps/programs. The best part is getting a kid started and seeing their face when they make their first basket, as well as seeing athletes who are making that leap. The leap of getting their own equipment, going to camps, practicing on their own and having the drive to excel! Working with the veterans is great as well because it provides these men and women a sense of normalcy.
Richardson: What do you do with your free time away from basketball and your work with your foundation?
Martin: Free time? What’s that? I run a NPO lol! I love to travel, spend time with Lindsay (my better half) and my family. Usually I’m on the go quite a bit so I enjoy downtime!
Richardson: What would be the best way for those interested to learn more about the Ryan Martin Foundation?
Martin: The best way would be to follow us on social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram), visit our website or drop us a line!