When Wichita native Rob Egan was in eighth grade, he entered an essay contest sponsored by then-State Treasurer Lynn Jenkins.
The contest challenged participants to write a 100-word plan to change the world. For Egan, that meant starting a foundation to support adapted athletics for people with disabilities.
Someone else won the contest.
“And I decided that somehow, at some point, I was going to show the judges of the contest that I could actually do what I said I was going to do in my essay, which was to start an organization that provided students at the college level with opportunities to compete in intercollegiate sport activities,” said Egan, who has cerebral palsy, a group of disorders that can affect a person’s muscular control.
When Egan was younger, he went to camps for kids with disabilities because he wanted to be active like his four younger brothers. At the camps he learned that younger students with disabilities have access to adapted athletics, but the options are limited at the college level.
That’s why, at age 14, he started the American Collegiate Society for Adapted Athletics, a nonprofit that supports existing adapted athletics programs at universities and helps start new ones.
Proving them wrong
Egan said he faced skepticism early on because of his age, but he was persistent.
“I don’t like to be told no,” he said. “In fact, when somebody tells me that I can’t do something, it makes me work harder so that I can prove them wrong.”
Now he hopes the Kansas Legislature will pass a bill to expand opportunities for other athletes with disabilities. House Bill 2664, introduced by Rep. Brandon Whipple, a Democrat from Wichita, and Rep. Blake Carpenter, a Republican from Derby, would create a grant program for universities to help establish adapted athletic leagues. The program would make Kansas the second state — behind Missouri — to allocate funds for adapted athletics.
Beginning with 2017 tax returns, taxpayers would be able to donate to a pool of grant money when they file their state income taxes. The money would be moved into a fund established by the state treasury, and universities could apply for grants.
There’s evidence of demand for the grant money. Students at the University of Kansas recently tried to start a wheelchair basketball team, but without funding, it was unsuccessful.
Whipple said the bill would provide students who fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act with new athletic opportunities, helping Kansas schools attract more of them.
“Part of what we want to do is to say — if one of these universities in our state takes on not only this program but starts to market to that community — we can attract some of the best and brightest in the Midwest,” Whipple said.
The bill is broad enough to include more than wheelchair basketball, he added, and it’s budget neutral.
Egan is now a student at the University of Arizona. His foundation has branched out into other sports, including tennis.
He said it’s important for people with disabilities to lead an active, healthy lifestyle, and making it possible for students with disabilities to participate in athletics is part of that.
“For many intercollegiate adapted athletes, their participation in their sport through their university is their portal to a degree.”- Rob Egan, founder of the American Collegiate Society for Adapted Athletics
This opportunity would be bigger than just sports for many students, Egan said.
“For many intercollegiate adapted athletes, their participation in their sport through their university is their portal to a degree,” he said. “It’s their portal to an education, which is their pathway to a job, which is their pathway to a career, which is their pathway to economic success, which is their pathway to an independent life.”
That independence is huge, he said.
“As someone who’s grown up with a disability, there’s nothing I want more in my life than to be independent and to be successful,” Egan said. “And I think for so many people, this is how they get there.”
Keeping students in Kansas
Out-of-state basketball programs often attract students like Joshua Ruoff, who spent a year on the University of Missouri’s wheelchair basketball team.
If Kansas were to create a program, more students with disabilities might remain in-state for college, Whipple and Egan said.
“We’ve got kids in Kansas who would stay in Kansas if there was a program in Kansas for them to go to instead of going to a Texas or Missouri or Illinois or Wisconsin or Pennsylvania or Alabama — those other states that have programs,” Egan said.
Ruoff, who was born with spina bifida, learned about wheelchair basketball when he saw the Kansas Wheelhawks play in Lawrence. He played in junior leagues in Kansas before going to Missouri to play intercollegiate basketball.
“As a person with a disability, that can be a challenge at times, so to have this — to feel like you have a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging somewhere, that’s been the biggest, the greatest thing that I’ve gained from this experience,” Ruoff said.
Ruoff is now back in Kansas pursuing a degree in social work at Washburn University and playing for the Kansas Wheelhawks. His dream is to take his education and help children with disabilities, whether it be through adaptive sports, education or other advocacy.
“The deepest desire of every human heart is to feel belonging and acceptance,” he said. “Whether you’re in a wheelchair or not, that’s the same across the board. This bill is going to give that opportunity to those people to be involved in something that’s going to make them feel accepted.”
The bill was introduced Feb. 10 and referred to the House Committee on Education. It later was referred to the House Appropriations Committee, a move that makes it exempt from recent legislative deadlines.