Wheelchair Basketball and the First Push for Disability Rights

By David Davis, author of Wheels of Courage

Thirty years ago, on July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) on the South Lawn of the White House. The landmark legislation prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability in every aspect of society: employment, housing, transportation, and telecommunications.

"America welcomes into the mainstream of life all of our fellow citizens with disabilities," President Bush said. "We embrace you for your abilities and for your disabilities, for our similarities and indeed for our differences, for your past courage and your future dreams.

"Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down," he concluded.

The ADA was years in the making. The activists who fought for passage of the ADA, including Judith Heumann and the late Justin Dart Jr., deserve to be celebrated, as do the politicians who helped craft the legislation, including Congressman Tony Coelho (D-CA) and Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA).

That said, we also owe a debt of gratitude to a long-forgotten group of veterans who got the ball rolling in the fight for disability rights: World War II servicemen who were paralyzed on the battlefield.

The Rolling Devils Wheelchair Basketball Team

The Rolling Devils wheelchair basketball team from Naval Hospital Corona, circa 1947.
Credit: Courtesy of the Winterholler family

Long, Long Ago, in a World Before the ADA

Before World War II, paraplegia was considered a death sentence. The life expectancy of soldiers who suffered traumatic spinal-cord injuries during World War I was estimated to be about eighteen months. Most died from sepsis or infection; doctors dubbed them "dead-enders" and "no-hopers." Those who lived were shunted off to institutions or hidden from view by their families. 

World War II was a game-changer for paraplegia. Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine (including the advent of penicillin) and timely care by dedicated surgeons near the front lines, an estimated 2,500 U.S. paralyzed veterans returned home with a second chance at life. Wounded marines like Gene Fesenmeyer, shot by a sniper on Okinawa, and Johnny Winterholler, who lost the use of his legs while interned in a POW camp, could now envision a future.

How that future would unfold in the barrier-plagued society that awaited them was less clear. Handicapped parking spaces, kneeling buses, ramps leading to public buildings, and accessible bathrooms did not yet exist. Societal stigma against those with overt disabilities was so ingrained that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, stricken with polio in the 1920s, refused to be photographed in his wheelchair so as to "quiet the feelings of revulsion, pity, and embarrassment that his body provoked in others," according to FDR biographer James Tobin.

The Rolling Devils Wheelchair Basketball Team

Practice at Birmingham VA hospital's cozy gymnasium, circa 1946. Credit: Courtesy of the Rynearson family


The veterans regained their health and equilibrium in newly created spinal-cord injury wards inside Veterans Administration hospitals. They followed innovative rehabilitation treatments popularized by Dr. Ernest Bors in California and Dr. Howard Rusk in New York, a regimen that included exercise and recreation. This practice was considered revolutionary in medical circles; individuals with "crippled bodies," a term that President Roosevelt himself used, had never been given the opportunity to play sports.

Fledgling Sport of Wheelchair Basketball Challenged Disability Stereotypes

Breaking a sweat helped repair their damaged bodies and enabled them to adjust to the "new normal." At Birmingham VA hospital in Van Nuys, Calif., physical education instructor Bob Rynearson organized a wheelchair basketball team among the paralyzed veterans and wrote the first set of rules for the sport. Simultaneously, veterans at Cushing VA hospital in Framingham, Mass. took to the court in their 45-pound Everest & Jennings wheelchairs.

The Rolling Devils Wheelchair Basketball Team

The Flying Wheels take time out from basketball to lobby for disability rights with Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers. Credit: Courtesy of the Rynearson family


Soon, teams with evocative names like the Rolling Devils, the Flying Wheels and the Gizz Kids were barnstorming the nation and filling arenas with cheering, incredulous fans. They challenged non-disabled teams who borrowed wheelchairs for the occasion (including the Boston Celtics and the Harlem Globetrotters) and routinely trounced them.

In challenging stereotypes about disability, the veterans helped reduce the stigma of disability. They were the first group of paraplegics to be considered as something other than freaks or damaged goods. Rolling down the court in their E&Js showed the public, the media and the medical community that paraplegics were no longer content to watch life from the sidelines.

After all, if they could play basketball—basketball!—then anything was possible: holding down a job, getting married, starting a family and, yes, paying taxes.

On March 10, 1948, 15,561 spectators flocked to Madison Square Garden to watch a team of paralyzed veterans from Halloran hospital on Staten Island defeat the Cushing hospital veterans. Here's footage from that night:


The wounded warriors-turned-playmakers became media darlings. Halloran's Jack Gerhardt, a wiry paratrooper who was wounded at Normandy, was featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine. Hollywood came calling and made a movie about their exploits: "The Men" starred Marlon Brando, a young actor who on the night of the historic game at Madison Square Garden was wowing Broadway audiences in "A Streetcar Named Desire." Here's footage from the film:

They were joined by their British counterparts, led by the indomitable Dr. Ludwig Guttmann at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Together, they triggered the birth of the Paralympics. This marked the beginning of organized sports for individuals with disabilities, a movement that eventually expanded to include every type of disability as well as women and youth.

Put simply, the paralyzed veterans revolutionized the possibility of sport.

Paralyzed Veterans Rallied to Fight for Disability Rights

Equally important, they banded together to form the Paralyzed Veterans of America organization and fired the opening salvos in the protracted fight for human rights. They raised money for scientists to research paraplegia; lobbied Congress and President Harry Truman for legislation that addressed accessibility, employment, housing, and transportation; advocated for the principles of independence and self-determination; and stated loudly and eloquently that they didn't want to be treated as objects of pity or scorn.

Their efforts won passage of legislation that enabled them to buy cars with adaptive devices. Public Law No. 702, signed by President Truman in 1948, provided grants for the veterans to build homes with ramps, widened doorways, and bathrooms that accommodated their wheelchairs. That gave them the ability to live independently.

The Rolling Devils Wheelchair Basketball Team

On the 30th anniversary of the signing of the ADA, let's not forget the small but mighty group of pioneers who fearlessly proclaimed that it is ability, not disability that matters most. Indeed, while the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games have been postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the unlikely and courageous saga of the Flying Wheels, the Rolling Devils and the Gizz Kids endures.

"The years to come are not going to be wasted in self-pity or vain regrets," commented the New York Times after one of the earliest wheelchair basketball contests. "[These men] are going to be participants." [Feb 27, 1948, p. 20]

About the Author:

David Davis is the author of "Wheels of Courage: How Paralyzed Veterans from World War II Invented Wheelchair Basketball, Fought for Disability Rights, and Inspired a Nation." Publication date: August 2020, from Hachette Book Group. You can view more vintage photos and order the book at his website: www.ddavisla.com.

Pre-Register for Abilities Expo Today...It's Free!

Sign up for the Abilities Buzz

Stay in the know on disability news and info.