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Who should be eligible to curl from a wheelchair?

This deceptively simple question proved controversial, at least in Canada, during the 2007/8 season. Jim Armstrong, a 6-time Brier competitor whose curling career ended through injury, was declared eligible for wheelchair curling by a Canadian sports classifier perhaps more familiar with wheelchair basketball.

Opposition to that decision appeared to surprise the CCA, and ended in a rebuke by the World Curling Federation, who felt their eligibility rules requiring wheelchair use for daily mobility, clearly disqualified the ambulant Armstrong. Although presently ineligible for international competition, Armstrong was chosen by CurlBC coach Melissa Soligo to skip the BC team that went on to win the 2008 Canadian National Championships.

This summer the CCA has adopted several major WCF rules of competition changes, and has solicited advice on a definition of athlete eligibility that strikes a balance between inclusion and maintaining the integrity of the sport.

National champions in wheelchair curling (unlike regular curling) do not become Team Canada so WCF eligibility rules need not apply (although different eligibility rules would be an additional impediment to equal treatment in the future.)

Different wheelchair sports adopt different procedures, but a general principle is to provide opportunity for participation that would be impossible without a wheelchair. Is wheelchair curling merely curling from a wheelchair, or should it be limited to those reliant on a wheelchair, and if so, to what degree? And where does the increasingly popular stick curling format come in?

Where is the optimal eligibility setting on the continuum between "anyone sitting in a wheelchair" and "person requiring a wheelchair for daily mobility"? The former eliminates the temptation to stretch the rules, while possibly discouraging those who after all are the target audience - wheelchair users. The latter excludes those denied the opportunity to participate in organised curling by virtue of their physical circumstances, but who are not technically "wheelchair-based."

I would exclude those ambulant enough to participate in stick curling, but include those using braces and crutches, or who have an unsteady gait necessitating a wheelchair on-ice, but who chose not to use a wheelchair in their daily lives.

These distinctions only matter when deciding criteria for the Canadian National Championships. Play at local and club level can and should answer to the desires of those willing to be involved. For a national championship there has to be clear eligibility rules to ensure fairness.

Here then is my suggestion for eligibility to play in the Canadian Wheelchair Curling Championships:

To be eligible to play in competitions leading to participation in the Canadian Wheelchair Curling Championships, a player must be restricted in their mobility such that they are unable to deliver a curling stone without the use of a wheelchair.

Interpretation: Although wheelchair curling is intended to be played by people who use wheelchairs for their daily mobility, it should not exclude those unable to participate in stick curling because they are unable to safely deliver a rock while standing.

What do you think? You can contribute to a discussion on this topic by adding a comment to this entry at the Wheelchair Curling Blog.

Eric Eales - Kelowna BC
August 3, 2008

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