For Eli Wolff, Inclusion Inspires Innovation

Former Paralympian sees disability as a lens into humanity.

"The sport, recreation and play domain, far from being trivial, is essential for fully realizing the human rights promise" —Anne Hubbard, The Major Life Activity of Belonging (2004)

I met Eli Wolff through his work as an advocate for disability rights, but what struck me as I got to know him better is the extent to which his work is actually about a broader approach to inclusion. Talking with Eli, you realize that he sees disability as a lens into humanity more generally.

Eli is the director of both the Sport and Development Project at Brown University in Providence and the Inclusive Sports Initiative at the Institute for Human Centered Design in Boston. Eli’s own journey is emblematic of the field. Having survived a stroke at the age of two, Eli played on mainstream sports teams growing up, including in college as a member of the Brown soccer team. While in college, Eli made the Paralympics team, which led to a series of events and experiences that afforded him both an amazing series of adventures and a growing awareness of the discrepancies in access.

As a Paralympian, Eli had the opportunity to travel with Right to Play to Tanzania, where he came to more clearly see the broader role of sport in development. Eli points to universal design as a great example of the concept put into practice. The idea is, essentially, that there is a way to see creating access as an opportunity for innovation rather than a burden. That if design is undertaken from the perspective of structurally changing the experience of participating—for example, through broad-spectrum ideas that produce buildings, products, environments, and experiences that are inherently accessible—then everyone benefits.

Eli’s work reminds us that sport has an important platform for advocating for change. From the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities to the ESPY Awards honoring male and female athletes with disabilities, the struggles for inclusion that transpire on our playing fields often pave the way for inclusion more broadly in our communities.

Eli is also quick to acknowledge that working for inclusion is an endurance sport and not a sprint. He points to the similarities and parallels that exist between discrimination against people with disabilities and discrimination against other groups based on race or gender and sexual orientation. Just as policy is critical to achieving equality for these other groups, the work also does not end when policy is set.

Eli’s work in leveraging the power of sport and play to promote inclusion, access and diversity is an amazing example of "bringing out the best."

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