A woman standing on an athletic field wearing a gray T-shirt holds up a rugby ball as she speaks to other people on the field

Inspired by Her Cousin, Student Brings Adaptive Rugby to Charlottesville

Alexis Ward, a graduate student in the School of Education and Human Development, has been working to improve the lives of people with disabilities ever since she was a kid.

Whitelaw Reid

Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications.

Some of Alexis Ward’s fondest childhood memories center on large family gatherings with her cousins. Upon arrival, all of the kids would scamper off excitedly to play with each other, with the boys usually sticking with the boys and the girls often sticking with the girls.

Unfortunately, during all the excitement, one of Ward’s cousins, Corey, was sometimes stuck by herself. Being in a wheelchair meant she couldn’t always join the gang.

This never sat well with Ward. Even though she was only in elementary school at the time, Ward wanted her older cousin to be involved.

Ward has had that inclusive mindset ever since. The soon-to-be double-Hoo, who earned an undergraduate degree in kinesiology last spring and is currently working toward her master’s degree in adaptive physical education from the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development, is on a mission to help people with disabilities.

On Friday evening at Madison Bowl, Ward and her UVA rugby club teammates held an adaptive rugby clinic for people with disabilities in Charlottesville.

“Now that rugby has become a crucial part of my life, I thought it would be cool to kind of merge my two passions together,” said Ward, a team captain who first started playing the sport as a second-year student.

During Friday’s clinic, Ward had participants play a less-physical version of rugby that was akin to flag football, in that players grabbed flags off of each other’s waistbands instead of tackling each other. Ward said her goal is to start a regular adaptive rugby league in the spring.

School of Education and Human Development professor Martin Block said Ward is special.

“She single-handedly created this adaptive rugby program, making contacts with our local Special Olympics and Charlottesville Parks and Recreation to generate interest with athletes,” said Block, program director of Kinesiology for Individuals with Disabilities. “This is the first time adaptive rugby [was] played in Charlottesville, and perhaps the first time it [was] played in Virginia.”

A first-generation college student from Annapolis, Maryland, Ward grew up around several people with disabilities in addition to her cousin.

When she was in elementary school, she began volunteering for a Special Olympics adaptive lacrosse program, as well as Best Buddies International, a program in which non-impaired people are paired with “buddies” with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Through Best Buddies, Ward ate her school lunches with classmates who had disabilities. The adaptive lacrosse program was started by Ward’s friend’s younger sister, Rosa Marcellino, who teamed with President Barack Obama in 2009 to pass “Rosa’s Law,” a United States law that replaced several instances of “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability.”

At South River High School, Ward played lacrosse, soccer, basketball and volleyball. As a senior, Ward hurt her shoulder and could no longer play lacrosse, but quickly joined an adaptive bocce team. “My school was very inclusive, which I think was pretty helpful with keeping me involved,” Ward said.

Ward continued her involvement at UVA. Through Best Buddies, she was paired up with a 60-year-old Charlottesville man who was completely nonverbal. “A lot of people see it as a volunteer club, which it’s not,” Ward said. “It’s not volunteering. It focuses on creating that friendship. It’s being friends with someone.”

Ward said her relationship with the man has grown over the last four-plus years.

“When we first started hanging out, it was hard to gain that connection,” Ward said. “But toward my second year, I began to notice that when I walked in the room, he would notice me. You could definitely tell that we were buddies.”

As a third-year student, Ward took a kinesiology for individuals with disabilities course with professor Luke Kelly that led her to pursue her master’s in the field. As part of an assignment, students were tasked with using wheelchairs to get to certain places around Grounds. Ward’s route started at Memorial Gym, then took her to Newcomb Hall, the Aquatics and Fitness Center, the Lawn and then back to Mem Gym.

“It was meant to show that our world is inaccessible, rather than [people with disabilities] being unable to access things,” Ward said. “There were a lot of projects like that that were just eye-opening.”

Ward said she has seen Grounds become more accessible than when she first arrived.

Ramps have been put on the Lawn, which used to only have stairs – and that has been really cool to watch,” she said. “Getting in that wheelchair, it was so hard to get around because Charlottesville is so hilly and UVA is pretty big.”

Ward said she has learned much from Kelly and Block. The biggest thing, she said, is that people aren’t disabled because of their physical capabilities; rather, they are disabled because of what society is not giving them to allow them to participate.

“We’re disabling them,” Ward said. “From an inclusion standpoint, it’s just been a really cool perspective they’ve shared with me.”

Under the professors’ tutelage, and through a series of volunteering and interning experiences, Ward realized she had a passion for helping children with disabilities, which led to her joining the Kinesiology for Individuals with Disabilities master’s program this past summer. As part of the program, she has been teaching children with disabilities in Albemarle and Nelson county schools and at the Virginia Institute for Autism.

“You can see the intensity and goal-driven nature of her personality that has helped her excel as a student at UVA,” Block said. “This same intensity and determination will help her push, in a good way, her clients to work hard to meet their goals. I have already seen her in the schools working with children and gently pushing them to try harder.”

Ward’s ultimate goal is to become a pediatric occupational therapist, continuing to help children reach their physical goals.

Ward still remembers how difficult it was for her cousin Corey, who only had limited use of her limbs, to do certain things as a child, and that has continued into adulthood. Now 30, she has spent most of her life in physical and occupational therapy.

Gregarious by nature, Corey has always been Ward’s biggest inspiration.

“I feel like if I walked into a store right now, she would yell my name at the top of her lungs,” Ward said. “She’s super loud, super funny.

“She’s one of my people, and I’m one of her people.”

For more information on Ward’s adaptive rugby program, email her at [email protected].

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