Wichita City Council to vote on wheelchair-softball field

This week brought the opening of the Major League Baseball season, and it could also be a milestone for wheelchair softball in the Wichita area.

That's because City Council members today will vote on spending up to $300,000 to convert the dirt ball field at Orchard Park in west Wichita into a synthetic surface softball diamond for people who use wheelchairs or have other disabilities.

It would be the first field of its kind in the Wichita area, said Doug Kupper, director of the city's park and recreation department.

Along with the new synthetic surface, similar to that used at some Wichita playgrounds, the city would install accessible sidewalks, dugouts and bleachers.

Kupper expects the sport to quickly gain popularity.

Last year, the city helped jump-start a baseball league for people with developmental disabilities.

About 60 people — enough for four teams — came out, Kupper said.

"We figure it will grow from there," he said.

It's also a growing sport nationally.

The National Wheelchair Softball Association's Web site lists more than 15 teams nationwide, including teams in Colorado and Nebraska.

Those states also have developing junior teams.

Wayne Romero, president of Wheelchair Sports Inc., a nonprofit in Wichita, said there are already people in Wichita who drive to Kansas City to play wheelchair softball.

Since Wichita hasn't had a field, he's not sure how much interest the field may draw.

At times, he said, it can be tough to find enough players for 5-on-5 basketball and have to ask people without disabilities to fill out their teams in a wheelchair.

"I'm not sure how much interest we can drum up," he said.

The field at Orchard Park is part of the park's evolution into a place for many activities for people with disabilities.

The Orchard Recreation Center, at 4808 W. Ninth St., offers programs for the developmentally disabled, including social activities, physical fitness, skills activities and special events such as dances, banquets and sporting events.

The park "is still used by everybody," Kupper said. "But we're creating a better niche for the physically and mentally challenged there."