Kevin Fitzgerald
Nationally ranked wheelchair tennis player Tom Ayala goes for a shot during a Desert Ability Center clinic supervised by Jim Leupold. Credit: Kevin Fitzgerald

The Desert Ability Center aims to take the “dis” out of disability.

That’s how founder and executive director Judy May sometimes describes her personal crusade to help individuals with disabilities living in the Coachella Valley. Many are struggling to put their lives back together—and when she or other DAC team members come into contact with a person whose life is being defined by limitations imposed through trauma or genetics, they set about infusing those lives with new meaning by drawing them into the world of adaptive sports.

What are adaptive sports? Put simply, they’re sports modified in a way so people with disabilities can participate.

“For me, it’s (a matter of asking a person with a disability), ‘What sport would you like to try?’ And then we have to figure out how to adapt that sport,” said Michael Rosenkrantz, DAC’s director of program development.

When that connection is made, the renewed interpersonal engagement and physical exercise brought about via an adaptive-sports program is often nothing short of transformative.

“I had a brain-injured young woman from high school go up the rock wall at (one of our adaptive) sports festivals,” May said during a recent interview during a DAC wheelchair-tennis clinic, held at the JW Marriott Desert Springs Tennis Club in Palm Desert. “She was pretty newly injured, but she came out. And when she came off that rock wall, they got her on video for TV saying, ‘I can do anything!’ With her limited speech, she said, ‘I can do anything!’

“It’s powerful stuff. It really is powerful stuff.”

Rosenkrantz has had a hand in developing wheelchair basketball and other adaptive-sports programs since 2009, in such diverse locales as India, Nepal, North Carolina and Arizona.

“Imagine you’ve had an accident in a car, and you’ve become an amputee. That’s depressing, right?” Rosenkrantz said. “So, the first step is just getting people out of the house, and then sports are very much an entry point into leading a full life. The kids learn all sorts of life skills that they take with them forever. Getting people to see the opportunities and then to get them to participate—that’s the key.

“What Judy has really done in the Coachella Valley is develop all of these opportunities. Now the next step is creating a lot more awareness. We know that there’s an older population here, and with that come people with disabilities. But (the challenge is) just getting into the various communities where there are people with disabilities, so that they know about us, and that we have all of these sports that they might like to try, and then getting them to participate. Transportation here in Coachella Valley (can be) a huge issue.”

May, who formerly taught deaf students for 14 years, pointed out other obstacles that persons with disabilities have to overcome to play adaptive sports.

“The biggest thing holding (potential participants) back is the cost of equipment. Most families can’t afford it,” May said. “The wheelchairs run around $2,000, and the cycles run around $2,500. So, as an organization, we raise money and help get cycles for kids. Besides equipment, the other thing that holds a lot of (kids) back is that they’re not exposed or included. They’re fearful, and their parents are fearful. … That’s what the festival is about.”

The festival she’s referring to is DAC’s Eighth Annual Ability Festival, taking place Saturday, Dec. 14, at the Palm Desert Civic Center Park.

“In order to reach the entire community, we started this festival with five sports,” May said. “Now, we bring in Paralympian coaches from out of the area that do rock-climbing and rowing and all the Paralympic-level sports. They all have a disability, and they all have wonderful histories in their sports. For instance, Angela Madsen comes in and teaches rowing. She’s a spinal-cord-injured veteran, and she holds at least six Guinness World Records for rowing. She’s training for a solo row from Long Beach to Honolulu. So, these are the kinds of coaches who come, on their own time, and volunteer to teach these sports and let kids see, ‘If I can do this, you can do it.’

“It’s an event for every age and any disability. There will be archery, golf, 15 recreational games, bocce, baseball, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis, rock climbing, wheelchair skate boarding and sitting volleyball. So, all told, we should have close to 30 events—partly Paralympic, and partly recreational. Any kid who comes can be adapted (to a sport). I don’t think we’ve ever had a child or adult come who couldn’t be adapted. We’re hoping to set up some competitions and get some games going where they’re keeping score.

May added: “We’ve got a lot of developmentally disabled kids, and we provide activities that they can do. I’m adding a component called ‘The Adaptive Sports Experience,’ because part of the movement that everybody’s doing across the United States is, ‘Let’s play together.’ I’m disabled; you’re not, but we can still play together.”

One of the goals of DAC’s year-round programs is to normalize the adaptive-sports experience in whatever ways possible. May likes to expose able-bodied student athletes to the unique adaptive-sports challenges firsthand.

“I bring in about 100 high school athletes, and I split them up into teams, and they go play their sport, but it’s the adaptive version,” she said. “If you’re a basketball player, then you’re going to play wheelchair basketball. If you’re a tennis player, you’re going to play wheelchair tennis.”

Rosenkrantz, who recently joined the DAC team after moving to the Coachella Valley from North Carolina, said recognizing the very real abilities of the DAC program participants is an integral part of motivating, inspiring and creating confidence.

“We know there are a number of athletes out there (in our valley who we want to reach),” Rosenkrantz said. “I think it’s really important that we refer to (our participants) as athletes. They may be in a wheelchair, or they may be an amputee, but they’re athletes—and that’s really key.

“OK, so it’s a balance sport, and you may have to use a wheelchair, because you have spina bifida. Big deal. The chair becomes part of your body. That’s all it is. The guy who has had a stroke and wants to play golf can still play golf, right? You just have to adapt things.”

Tom Ayala is a nationally ranked competitive wheelchair-tennis player who was paralyzed in a car accident more than 20 years ago; he attends the DAC wheelchair-tennis clinics regularly.

“Getting involved with DAC is probably the most positive thing (I’ve done),” Ayala said. “We’ve got the Ability Festival coming up, and I’ll be coaching the tennis. I love being involved in the program itself, because it promotes well-being and healthiness. You know, we just look for something to make us happy in life, and something to look forward to. We have sports to keep us busy, because we go through a lot of down times. So, if we have this stuff to keep us busy, that’s where we want to go. And I love teaching now. That’s what I do.”

With many achievements behind them, May and Rosenkrantz said DAC has a lot more work to do.

“We know that at least 10 percent of the total population has some sort of disability, whether it’s cognitive or physical,” Rosenkrantz said. “So, we’re just scratching the surface right now. We know there are a lot more (people we can help).”

May said she’d love to see the Coachella Valley become a haven for adaptive sports.

“Our end game is to bring competitions to the desert,” May said. “In the middle of the winter when people in the snowy states can’t go outside and do adaptive sports, who wouldn’t want to come here and (participate) in a tennis tournament? So, that’s a definite possibility.”

For more information, visit DAC is in need of volunteers to help with this year’s Ability Festival and the year-round clinics; if interested, email

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, after he and his wife Linda moved from Los Angeles to Palm...