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updated: 7/10/2011 6:39 PM

Schaumburg expo highlights abilities of the disabled

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  • Dan Sauber, middle, tries to keep the ball away from opponents Matt Molenkamp, left, of Itasca, and Fernando Duarte, right, 13, of Cicero. The three are part of a wheelchair rugby team sponsored by the Rehab Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Bears.

       Dan Sauber, middle, tries to keep the ball away from opponents Matt Molenkamp, left, of Itasca, and Fernando Duarte, right, 13, of Cicero. The three are part of a wheelchair rugby team sponsored by the Rehab Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Bears.
    Samantha Bowden | Staff Photographer

  • Matt Molenkamp, of Itasca, comes in for a goal during a game of wheelchair rugby at the annual Abilities Expo Sunday at the Schaumburg convention center. Molenkamp is part of the RIC Bears wheelchair rugby team.

       Matt Molenkamp, of Itasca, comes in for a goal during a game of wheelchair rugby at the annual Abilities Expo Sunday at the Schaumburg convention center. Molenkamp is part of the RIC Bears wheelchair rugby team.
    Samantha Bowden | Staff Photographer

  • Blong Moua, of Madison, Wis, tries out one the many wheelchair accessible vans that were on display at the annual Abilities Expo on Sunday at the Schaumburg convention center.

       Blong Moua, of Madison, Wis, tries out one the many wheelchair accessible vans that were on display at the annual Abilities Expo on Sunday at the Schaumburg convention center.
    Samantha Bowden | Staff Photographer

  • Chelsie Hill, right, from Monterey, Calif., and Mia Schailkewitz, from North Hollywood, Calif., perform a dance routine at the annual Abilities Expo on Sunday at the Schaumburg convention center. They are part of a wheelchair dance crew called Colors in Motion.

       Chelsie Hill, right, from Monterey, Calif., and Mia Schailkewitz, from North Hollywood, Calif., perform a dance routine at the annual Abilities Expo on Sunday at the Schaumburg convention center. They are part of a wheelchair dance crew called Colors in Motion.
    Samantha Bowden | Staff Photographer

 

The key to Ability Expo, held over the weekend at the Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel and Convention Center, is in the name.

Or rather, what's not in it.

It emphasizes ability, not disability.

To get a better idea, though, forget about the words. All you had to do was watch the combatants in the wheelchair rugby competition as they ferociously rammed each other like bumper cars gone berserk.

But behind all the intensity was a pure joy in competition.

Nick Fonner of Homewood, one of the captains of the Chicago Bears Wheelchair Rugby team, said wheelchair rugby combines several sports, involving such skills as dribbling and passing.

On the other hand, he said, "It is full contact, so that it is very similar to rugby."

The only thing that is not allowed is body contact. There is, however, plenty of chair-on-chair contact.

"You can hit a guy as hard as you want. If they fall over and get bumped up and bruises, that's part of the game," Fonner said. "It's a way for us to just bond and have a good time and make fun of each other. It's also a great way to get out the week's frustrations. Go to the gym, go to practice and hit somebody as hard as you want."

The chairs themselves are specially designed, some with open sides and hooks on the front that are built for defense, and others with wings to help players on offense.

The majority of players have spinal cord injuries. Fonner, 32, was in an auto accident almost 16 years ago. His car was pushed off the road by another vehicle, wound up in a ditch and flipped over.

The sport spurs its participants to improve, he said. He came to rugby when he was 17. Many of his teammates were 10, 15 or 20 years "post injury."

"I saw they were working, driving, had families. So it's like, 'Cool. They can do it, so I can do it.' So that kind of gives you a little bit more of a push to get out there and do more for yourself."

Among those at the Expo were Fonner's wife, Suzzi, and their 14-month-old daughter, Brin.

Suzzi Fonner said rugby "gets him out and socializing with peers. It's a huge part of his life and has become a huge part of our life, because it's an activity that is very important to him. It makes him happy."

She said people tend to harbor preconceived ideas of what disability is and lump all disabilities in one category. Rugby opens eyes, showing people that a disability doesn't necessarily have to be so limiting.

"I think it's absolutely breaking barriers," she said.

Joe Gerardi of Addison, 45, began playing the sport after seeing players in action in his hometown.

"It's so important, because we need something to do to stay physically fit. Otherwise, if we stay home, we get out of shape really easy," Gerardi said. "It's also a good social activity. We meet other people. We meet other teams. It's a lot of fun."

More than 3,500 people attended this weekend's Expo, including not only persons with disabilities, but also friends, caregivers and health care professionals.

The rugby competition was just one of the events featured at the Expo. Guests could also enjoy a wheelchair dance competition, wheelchair basketball and adaptive gardening, among other events.

They also had the opportunity to explore the latest products for persons with disabilities, ranging from ergonomic crutches to fold-up scooters.

"This is kind of a mega super store for the community of people with disabilities," said David Korse, spokesman for Abilities Expo.

Korse said about 175 exhibitors offered everything from mobility vehicles and wheelchairs to exercise equipment and hyperbaric chambers.

Marilyn Dockus of Mundelein attended to find anything that could help her. She said she fell in her bedroom three years ago, hitting her head and causing her spine to break.

"They fused four of the vertebrae, so I can move my hand, and I can walk with a walker, but very slowly," she said.

For her, the Expo provided an opportunity to network. But she added, "It's interesting to see other people...you go out to the store, you're the only one in the store in this chair...so it's interesting to see that there are other people that are having the same problem."

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