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It's Time to Level the Playing Field, Student Researcher Says

Graduate student hopes her research expands opportunities for more people to participate in adaptive sports and recreation. 

According to the U.S. Census, some 42.5 million Americans — about 13 percent of the population — had a disability in 2021. Like many of them, Betsey Hubbard has non-apparent disabilities. A student in the University of Northern Colorado's Sport and Exercise Science Ph.D. – Sport Administration Concentration program, Hubbard is researching adaptive sports and recreation. 

Adaptive sport is recreation or physical activity that can be modified depending on the individual's needs.

"Long-term my hope is that more recreation centers on college campuses and in city parks and recreation departments will see the value in making sure that anyone can participate in their programs."

— Betsey Hubbard

"The root of my research is anyone can be an athlete. At age 22 and in college, you might be able. But when you're age 72 and you've lived a full life, your ability won't look the same. Improved accessibility could make the lives of everyone in our society better, not just people with disabilities," Hubbard said. 

Hubbard has participated in graduate research evenings and symposiums every semester, each time tackling a different subject related to adaptive sports. In fall 2023, she garnered second place in the Hutchinson-Lahman Research Award for her poster presentation "Competitive Spirit: A Case Study on the Intersection of Disability, Gender, and Adaptive Sports."

Betsey Hubbard facing front and smiling.
Betsey Hubbard

"All sorts of avenues have opened themselves to me from sharing research and being open to pursuing lines of thought I hadn't considered before. Long-term my hope is that more recreation centers on college campuses and in city parks and recreation departments will see the value in making sure that anyone can participate in their programs," she said. 

The events have grown her confidence in speaking about her research and its importance as well as her own story. 

"At age 16 I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. I started dislocating most of my joints on a regular basis," said Hubbard. "I'd played soccer since I was 3- or 4-years-old and got into cross-country running in middle school. I went into high school thinking I might play soccer in college but was told I shouldn’t play anymore." 

Her health journey included open-heart surgery at age 4 and progressive vision difficulties. Eventually, Hubbard discovered modifications and adaptions that allowed her to resume physical activities. Today, she enjoys road racing and ultramarathons. She said her experiences have made her a better teacher. 

"I had a long road back, but now I can see where my students who love sports but aren't sure how to stay with them are coming from," she said." 

She remained passionate about sports, even when she couldn't participate. She was such a "sports nerd" that she earned a bachelor's degree in Sport Management and a master's in Parks, Recreation and Tourism from North Carolina State University. At UNC, she is adding teaching experience to her repertoire. 

"Last week in class we were talking about the 1968 Olympics, and the protest that John Carlos and Tommie Smith did, where they raised their fists during their medal ceremony [in support of human rights]. I realized sports are so impactful, not just on athletes, but the entire society around them," she said. 

In addition to teaching at UNC as a graduate assistant, she works for the City of Greeley as a youth sports department supervisor. She facilitates soccer, basketball and volleyball events and coaches for the track and field and cross-country teams. 

Alan Morse, a professor in the College of Natural and Health Sciences' Department of Kinesiology, Nutrition, and Dietetics, has supported Hubbard's research. 

"Dr. Morse knows that I've lived this. His recognition that what I'm doing is important has been very encouraging," she said. 

Morse believes Hubbard will bring awareness to adaptive and unified sports. 

"She's self-motivated, and she has personal experience with her line of research. When a student is passionate about their investigation, it makes them a better researcher because they truly want to discover answers to their questions," Morse said. 

He views Hubbard's research as instructive. 

"In one study, she looked at the attitudes of undergraduate students toward disability to understand how engaging in an adaptive sport affects perceptions. She had students play sitting volleyball, and the students struggled with the effort and skill required to play. The findings indicated a change in attitude and perceptions after experiencing that. I think her research is going to have an impact in the community, and hopefully on society as well," he said. 

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