Westmont Elementary School teacher Joni Lawton currently is pursuing a doctorate degree, and her dissertation is on how being a part of a team helps disabled children with their identity formation.
Much of her research comes from books, but she also draws knowledge from personal experience.
At home, her son Kurt battles cerebral palsy. At work, she assists disabled students. At play, she has seen how teamwork allows children to overcome physical challenges.
Joni Lawton coaches the Columbia Fireballs, which features wheelchair soccer and basketball teams. Since the Fireballs began competing in American Association of Adaptive Sports Programs state junior events five years ago, the Fireballs have won two state basketball championships and a state soccer title.
"Everything that comes out of a program like this is positive," Lawton said. "How you see yourself is important in what you become. These players will tell you that they have many abilities, not really any disability."
During a practice last week at Lakeside Middle School, Fireballs' star Israel Schulz sped downcourt. He has scored over 50 points in a wheelchair basketball game, and has been the driving force in the team's state titles.
Yet some of Israel's classmates at Lakeside High School don't believe a person with no legs can be a champion.
"They have never seen him play and they don't see him as an athlete, and he really has a problem with them not recognizing that he is such a talented athlete," Lawton said.
"A lot of these kids come to us with determination because they've been through so much before they got here. Israel is a perfect example. He wants to be the best at whatever he does and he is one of the best in his sport."
In addition to playing with the Fireballs, Israel, Jennifer Edwards and Kurt Lawton also participate on junior national basketball teams.
Kurt estimates that he plays 30 to 40 games a year, and practices three or four times a week. The one tiring thing is convincing his Greenbrier Middle School classmates that he's an athlete.
In fact, Kurt can debunk the misperception that being disabled means you're fragile. "One of my favorite sports is wheelchair Rugby. It's a contact sport - you ram, you flip, you do just about everything."
The Columbia Fireballs have opened the 2002 basketball season with three straight wins, as the team has made a smooth transition from 8 1/2-foot goals to this year's new 10-foot height.
Next year, the Fireballs will shoot even higher - the AAASP and the Georgia High School Association recently formed an alliance, and the GHSA plans to hold the wheelchair basketball championships in conjunction with the state high school basketball tournament.
"I thought it was pretty cool that they would be doing that. A lot of good things have happened for us," said Matt Miklas, who has been with the Fireballs since the team's inception.
The tie-in between the AAASP and GHSA state basketball tournaments will give adaptive sports programs added exposure, which in turn could open doors for other disabled athletes in Georgia.
"We're hoping that with the alliance with the GHSA, we will see more teams and more divisions, and that it will also help in finding funding for some of these programs," Lawton said. "What we've seen is that in some of the smaller, rural counties, there may not be enough kids, and counties can group together to form a team. It's all about exposure."
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