Oscar Pistorius’s arduous quest to become the first amputee runner to compete in the Olympic Games is spurring many, including Evanston Township High School freshman Jackson Gehringer, to expand their conceptions of what it is to be an athlete.

Pistorius, a double-amputee sprinter whose personal best of 46.33 seconds for the 400 meter is just shy of the Olympic qualifying time, was told last January by the International Association of Athletics Federations that he could not compete in the Beijing Olympics because the carbon fiber Cheetah blades he runs on are more energy efficient than human legs and would give him an unfair advantage over able-bodied athletes.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport just recently overturned that ruling, pronouncing to the public that his prosthetic racing blades do not give him an unfair advantage over the other runners. Now, Pistorius just needs to make the qualifying time, which may not happen until the 2012 Games in London. This highly publicized CAS ruling is viewed as a victory of sorts for differently-abled athletes, but it is only one instance of the increase in opportunities available to these athletes over the last couple of decades.

Closer to home, in Northern Illinois, the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association (GLASA) has had a heavy hand in the movement for increased opportunity for disabled athletes. Evanston athlete Jackson Gehringer, a freshman at ETHS with spina bifida, is currently participating in the Adaptive Tennis program at GLASA. The main focus of the Adaptive Tennis program, as Gehringer describes it, is on helping him to develop his skills and learn how to become a better player.

Gehringer first became involved with GLASA’s Swimming program, and he later participated in Wheelchair Basketball. He says he made the switch to tennis because he “likes being all over the court” whereas “in basketball, there is a lot of sitting and waiting.”

“Tennis allows me to move more,” explains Gehringer, who uses a wheelchair. When asked if he has plans to try out any of the other programs offered at GLASA, Gehringer is quick to reply. “I’ll definitely stick with tennis,” he says.

Gehringer is equally sure of what his participation in GLASA has done for him.

“It’s definitely been a positive influence,” he says.

The athletic opportunities provided by the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association to northern Illinois athletes with physical or visual impairments are an example of the positive change that increased awareness of differently-abled athletes can bring about.

GLASA’s mission is “to promote and support the optimal development and well-being for youth and adults who have a primary physical or visual impairment through the provision of inclusive recreational, fitness and competitive sports activities.” The organization formed in 1993. At the time, there were few adaptive sports and recreation programs available for physically disabled individuals living in northern Illinois.

Over the years, GLASA has served more than 225 children and adults. The majority of participants are under the age of 21, and these athletes participate in programs such as adaptive skiing, wheelchair floor hockey, adaptive aerobics, scuba diving and bowling.

Program Director Tom Daily says the athletic programs at GLASA are “not all about winning.” He says the overall feeling in the gym is that “everyone’s in the same boat” and that the programs are fun for both the athletes and their parents. Daily, who has served as an assistant coach in basketball and has overseen recreational floor hockey, says that “if there is anything negative about the influence that GLASA’s adaptive sports programs have had on these athletes, [he] hasn’t seen it.”

GLASA believes the quality of life should never be limited by a physical or visual disability. Gehringer, full of upbeat commentary on his first year at ETHS, stands as a living example of the organization’s vision statement.

GLASA has many volunteer opportunities. Contact Cindy Clement at 847-283-0908 for more information.