Last column, I featured eight-time Boston Marathon wheelchair division winner Jean Driscoll, who still holds the 26.2-mile course record. She has earned the recognition of being one of America’s all-time greatest female athletes. After retiring from wheelchair racing in 2000, and after winning Olympic medals, Driscoll became involved in two activities that would benefit thousands of people with disabilities.
The first involved disability advocate Joni Eareckson Tada, who Driscoll met in a Bible study held during the 2000 Olympic Games. “Then a couple months later, a staff member (of Joni and Friends) asked me to go to Ghana with Wheels for the World,” said Driscoll in a telephone interview. Joni and Friends’ Wheels for the World program has custom-fit tens of thousands of Ghanians in West Africa with donated wheelchairs over the last 20 years.
Said Driscoll, “While in Ghana, I taught a wheelchair track camp. I expected people to come on crutches and maybe wheelchairs, but I wasn’t prepared for the people who crawled into the stadium on hands and knees wearing sandals on their hands.”
Since then, Driscoll, through her employer the University of Illinois, has helped create an international disability sports outreach program. She also partnered with Rotary Clubs to raise money to donate equipment and bring eight Ghanaian wheelchair athletes to Illinois.
Two of those athletes, who had polio, represented Ghana in the 2004 Paralympic Games. One went from being treated by her family as an outcast to winning the 1,500-meter gold medal in the All Africa Games and becoming the family breadwinner. “Who else but God could do that?” said Driscoll.
Her other activity is really a job. In 2006, Driscoll began working in development (fundraising) for the University of Illinois department of applied sciences. “So I get to travel around the country meeting with alumni, cultivate relationships, and ask for gifts,” she said. “I look for the point in which an individual’s interests merge with a need in the college. It’s a win-win for everyone. For many of our alumni with disabilities who came here in the 1950s through ’70s, this was the only accessible campus in the U.S. and world.”
Likewise, said Driscoll, the University of Illinois today is the only university in the world that accommodates students with complex disabilities in a transitional living program, which helps them prepare for work and life and become more independent.