- Athens Inclusive Recreation and Sports (AIRS) works to provide adapted sports to the Athens area.
- Roger Keeney is the director of AIRS and has been playing beep baseball across the country for 37 years.
- The Athens Timberwolves are currently raising money to pay for a trip to the 2014 Beep Baseball World Series in Rochester, Minnesota.
Athens, GA – On a warm Saturday morning, the Athens Timberwolves arrive at Smith Park for a ball game. They are joined by “frenemies” (friendly enemies) the Atlanta Eclipse and the Columbus Midnight Stars.
As with any local showdown, the fans are enthusiastic and the players talk a little trash before, and during, the game. The sun is beaming. Everyone feels the heat, but the sunlight’s intense brightness only affects some. Almost all the players are blind.
Beep baseball is similar to its more prominent counterpart except the ball and bases make a sound and the players wear blindfolds. The auditory technology in the equipment tailor the game for blind players, turning the baseball diamond into a soundscape. The blindfolds then create an equal playing field among players with various levels of vision.
“‘You can’t do it because you’re blind, because you use a wheel chair, because you have a disability, you can’t.’ Once you’re told that enough, you begin to believe it,” says Timberwolves player Roger Keeney, who was blinded during a farm accident when he was younger.
Keeney works to make the “impossible possible”. He has played beep baseball with teams across the country for 37 years and has held two terms as President of the National Beep Baseball Association. When he is not doing doughnuts in a Mustang somewhere in the Arizona desert, these days Keeney dedicates his time as director of the nonprofit organization Athens Inclusive Recreation and Sports, also known as AIRS.
AIRS aims to provide fun for everyone regardless of limitations by offering opportunities to play beep baseball, beep kickball, power wheelchair basketball and basketball, and kayaking. The organization hopes to expand understanding and recognition of peoples with variety of disabilities through such adapted activities.
Keeney says the “I” in AIRS is the most important letter. It stands for inclusive, which might suggest meaning to place a disabled player in a normal sporting environment. However Keeney, clarifies. “Inclusion to us means if you’re transportation for someone that’s gonna play wheelchair basketball… We’ve got extra chairs. You’re on the floor playing wheelchair basketball,” asserts Keeney, ” In ten minutes, you won’t notice anybody has a disability at all because you’re gonna be playing so hard and competing so hard that they’re just athletes. When you stand up out of the chair and walk away, that understanding stays with you.”
It has stayed with University of Georgia student Angelina Howells who started interning with AIRS after Keeney guest lectured during one of her occupational therapy courses. Keeney’s wife Kim has cerebral palsy. She says that working with AIRS has made her realize that disabled people aren’t that different after all.
“When I first came in…I didn’t know how to talk to those with disabilities. But after going through this practicum and working with Roger and Kim and all of the participants who are in the program, there’s nothing different [about them]”, says Howells.
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The impact of AIRS is best felt at their big events like the beep baseball tournament. During the tournament, the field was covered by seasoned players like Keeney as well new recruits. At 54 years old, John Still recently joined the Athens Timberwolves. Throughout school, he was never let on a team because he was visually impaired.
Scean Atkinson is the Development Specialist of AIRS. He has been playing beep baseball while being visually impaired for four years. He started playing for the Timberwolves when he moved to the Athens area and now competes against his former team the Atlanta Eclipse. Atkinson says he used to be terrified of the idea of running around blindfolded, but that was a long time ago.
“My adrenaline is pumping. Beep baseball is like my drug. I just love it. I just love defense. I just love to hit the ball,” Atkinson exclaims, “I can’t get enough of it.”
Technology becomes an important a tool when adapting a sport for players with disabilities. Local volunteers from the Telephone Pioneers organization help out by showing up in the stands, but also by building new gadgets for AIRS. In between games, one of the “pioneers” shows Keeney a prototype for an improved version of the sound-emitting base used in beep baseball. Judy Byrd, manager of the Atlanta Eclipse team, has also developed a specialized ball for playing beep kickball.
While there is outside help giving back to AIRS, Keeney says finding a venue is still the most difficult part of his work.
“We’ve been asked to do a blind golf program and wheelchair tennis, but there again we need to find facility space,” says Keeney, “Other then finding facility space and grants and the support to run such an organization, as far as activities, we just go out and do them.”
The Athens Timberwolves are currently fundraising to attend the 2014 Beep Baseball World Series in Rochester, Minnesota.
Reporting by Russel Abad
Videography by Lesley Hauler