The Little League[R] Challenger Division Ensures Children with Disabilities Have Opportunities to Play Ball

By Downs, Chris | Palaestra, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Little League[R] Challenger Division Ensures Children with Disabilities Have Opportunities to Play Ball


Downs, Chris, Palaestra


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When asked to reflect on what Little League means to them, players and volunteers alike can conjure a myriad of memories, experiences, and opinions at a moment's notice. Beyond the wins and losses, the most common and most proud moments often revolve around their area's Little League Challenger Division.

Challenger's Beginning

The Challenger Division, established in 1989 as a separate division of Little League Baseball and Softball, enables boys and girls with physical and mental disabilities, ages 5-18 or the completion of high school, to enjoy the game of baseball along with the millions of other children who participate in this sport worldwide.

"All anyone wants is a chance to excel and feel good about their accomplishments," Jim Ferguson, Director of the Little League Challenger Division, said. "Through the Challenger Division, children, whether wheelchair users or faced with other challenges, can come together to enjoy all that comes with being a Little Leaguer."

The concept of children with disabilities playing Little League was the vision of Ed Beardsley. Mr. Beardsley, a Little League volunteer in Connecticut, had three boys. Two of Mr. Beardsley's sons played Little League, while his other son, David, with Down Syndrome, could only watch from the bleachers. Wanting to provide David with the same opportunities to play, he accepted an invitation from Little League Baseball and Softball to assist in creating a national program for children with disabilities. From that day forward, the Beardsleys have been recognized as the pioneers of the Little League Challenger Division. Ed Beardsley passed away in 2002, but David, who played in the first season of the Little League Challenger Division, is now a Little League volunteer for the current generation of Challenger players.

Graduates of the Challenger Division and their families appreciate the basic opportunities that come with getting on the field, and it's that chance to play that proves to be the most special. "I cannot say enough about the benefits of giving special needs youngsters an opportunity to participate in the great sport of baseball," Dr. Darrell Burnett, a licensed clinical psychologist and a certified sports psychologist specializing in youth sports, said. "The players get the thrill of people cheering them on, the pride of wearing a uniform like all the other Little Leaguers, and an increased self-confidence that comes when they catch, hit, or throw a ball."

Dr. Burnett also is a Little League volunteer in California, and coordinates several Challenger Division teams. He said that one of the greatest benefits of a child participating in the Challenger Division is the ear-to-ear grin on the faces of players and parents alike as they enjoy the recreational, everybody plays atmosphere. "Having fun and learning skills, taking pride in making progress, especially if it is measured in progress and effort, not the end product ... Challenger is what youth sports should be." Dr. Burnett, who has been involved with Little League since 1987 said, "The hours I spend volunteering in the Challenger program are effortless, especially when parents share stories about how their child slept in his uniform, refusing to take it off. Or when a little guy comes to the game on the weekend, gets pushed in a wheelchair to home plate as he comes up to bat, has his name announced over the public address system, hears the crowd cheer, and then, before swinging, wheels his chair over to the stands and says, 'Hey mom, I've got fans!'"

Buddies Are Unique and Special

Working as a team is what makes being a Challenger buddy (non-disabled Little League Major Division player, ages 11-12) so special and unique. Regardless of the disability, a buddy helps make the experience memorable by pairing him or her with a Challenger player to help them hit, field, or throw the ball. Buddies assist the Challenger players on the field, but whenever possible encourage the players to bat and make plays. …

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The Little League[R] Challenger Division Ensures Children with Disabilities Have Opportunities to Play Ball
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