At 10 years old and 50 pounds, Mia Lewis is a powerhouse basketball player. As she moves quickly around the court, passing balls to her teammates and making baskets, her skills more resemble a seasoned adult player than a beginning youth.
“It’s fun,” Mia says. “I like dribbling, shooting, and passing. Shooting is the hardest part. But I can make five baskets in a row now.”
Mia plays on the Ann Arbor CIL-sponsored Junior Thunderbirds Wheelchair Basketball Team in Southfield, which practices weekly and competes in wheelchair basketball leagues throughout Southeast Michigan and surrounding states.
“The wheelchair basketball program has been great for Mia,” says her mother, Andrea Munzenberger. “She has always loved being physically active, but before we learned about adaptive sports programs, we didn’t know how she could be active outside the house. The Thunderbirds team has been a big part of opening new opportunities for her.”
Mia says she likes playing basketball with other kids who use wheelchairs. “At school, I feel like I’m the only one who has a wheelchair. At recess, kids run around me, and I can’t always play. At basketball, I don’t feel different. We’re all the same. We can play faster and throw and catch together.”
A fourth-grader at Hoover Elementary School in Livonia, Mia has a condition called Transverse Myelitis, which means the covering over certain nerves in her spine are gone. “It’s like have an electrical cord without any insulation on it,” says Lonnie Lewis, Mia’s father. Because of damage to her nerves, Mia is paralyzed from the waist down.
“Doctors don’t know exactly what originally caused the condition. She came down with it when she was four,” Andrea says. Mia has a very small amount of sensation in her legs but no muscle movement in them.
“Since Mia became paralyzed, it’s been a long process of learning how to live a regular life,” Andrea says. “There was no training at the hospital on independent living. We had to figure it all out ourselves. Over the years, we’ve come a long way.”
Andrea says the biggest challenge they’ve dealt with is accessibility at buildings. “Most people don’t think about how they’re going to get into a building or use it. We constantly think about it,” she says. “Restrooms are often the biggest challenge. The ‘handicapped’ bathroom is not always accessible. Until you go through it, you never think about it. Living with a disability requires so much more planning. It changes your perspective on the world around you.”
Andrea says that as parents, she and Lonnie have challenged Mia to push herself and do things she didn’t think she could do. “For example, when Mia was young, we challenged her to figure out how to hoist herself onto a counter-height kitchen chair. She didn’t think she could do it at first, but we were patient with her and eventually she was able to do it. It was such a great accomplishment. Mia is more independent now because of it.”
Andrea says now when they go to buildings, Mia is in charge of finding the accessible entrances and door openers. “She’s learning to do more and more things by herself. Sometimes it would be easier to do things for her, but she’s gotten stronger and more independent from doing more things on her own.”
That strength and independence shows on the court. “She’s fearless,” says Claudia Brewer, the coach of the Thunderbirds team. “She has a great spirit. She’s not afraid to dive right in and make the play.”
Mia is now also involved in other adaptive sports, including sled hockey, quad rugby, wheelchair tennis, swimming, and handcycling. She says basketball is her favorite, though: “I love everything about it.”
“The wheelchair basketball program has been wonderful for her,” Andrea says. “She’s found a way to excel at being an athlete, and it’s enabled her to get out with other kids who use wheelchairs. She sees that she’s not that different. To know that she’s not the only one with a wheelchair is important.”
“Mia shows people that a disability doesn’t have to hold you back from anything,” Andrea adds. “She shows that if you believe in yourself and are willing to stretch yourself, you can do anything.”