Students raise a racquet for disabilities

June 13, 2014 10:14 AM
Ohio's No Limits Adaptive Tennis Program improves the participants' motors skills, increases their self-esteem and encourages them to build relationships with other players and coaches.
By Sarah Volpenhein, special to

Shrieks of glee punctured the air as the tennis ball fell with a plunk into the bucket.
Rachel Berens, a senior special education major and founder of the No Limits Adaptive Tennis program, said that is what the program is all about – the social bonds that form when achieving something together.
“The little victories that others take for granted are so selflessly celebrated,” she said.
No Limits teaches tennis to individuals with developmental disabilities ages 5 to 25. Many of the kids have problems with motor control. This exercise – passing the tennis ball in a circle from racket to racket until it reaches the bucket – helps improve balance and hand-eye coordination.
Berens was motivated to start the program four years ago by her sister Lauren, who has Down syndrome and hits “a mean forehand.”
“Remembering that I’m doing it for Lauren and all the other Laurens in the world is what makes me want to keep doing it,” Berens said.
About one of every six children in the country has a developmental disability, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet there are limited opportunities for kids with disabilities to participate in team sports. Berens said that there are only two adaptive sports programs in No Limits home base of Athens, Ohio. The other is an adaptive basketball clinic.
Berens pulls from a number of different organizations in making the tennis program a reality. She receives funding for marketing and supplies from Ohio University’s Student Council for Exceptional Children and from OU Club Sports. Then there are the volunteers, who come from OU Club Tennis and the OU Patton College of Education. Finally, there’s the curriculum, which she customizes to meet the kids’ different needs. Berens uses special equipment, including low-compression tennis balls and hula hoops, which act as targets for the kids.
“With a setting like this, we’re able to adapt the instruction to them,” she said.
Exercise is especially important for children with disabilities because they are at a higher risk of obesity than other children, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics. It also improves their motors skills, increases their self-esteem and encourages them to build relationships with other players and coaches.
Berens said her sister’s self-confidence has ballooned because of the program.
“The most important thing has been seeing her … be a part of something that normally she would never be able to participate in,” she said.
At first, the two Milazzo boys, 8-year-old Sam and 5-year-old Leo, could not hit the ball over the net. After attending four sessions with the program, they have moved on to more difficult skills like forehands and backhands.
“It introduces them to new motor skills, especially the balancing of the ball on the racket. Even simple things like that I think help them,” said Paul Milazzo, whose eldest son Sam has a developmental disability.
Ultimately, Berens hopes to establish a network of adaptive sporting opportunities for young people with disabilities in the Lancaster and Columbus areas of Ohio.
The program takes place at the Ohio University Golf and Tennis Center on South Green Drive during the school year. It is offered in Lancaster during the summer on four Saturdays.
No Limits Adaptive Tennis links: 
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