With the Paralympics in Rio last week, the strength of the human spirit was truly on display, showing what people can accomplish and overcome despite adversity. Shamong’s Joan Wheeler is a photographer who has dedicated part of her life to taking photos of these individuals involved in adaptive sports, sports played by persons with a physical or intellectual disability.
Wheeler’s story and artwork will be on display at the Markeim Arts Center, 104 Walnut St. in Haddonfield, in the exhibition “Adaptive Sports” alongside the juried art show “Strength and the Human Spirit,” showcasing the theme of how humans are able to overcome and accomplish great things. The exhibitions opened Sept. 16 and will run through Oct. 8.
“I am thrilled. (The Markeim Arts Center) is a wonderful place… I like educating people (through my photographs) and showing people that those who have differences can do the same we can,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler is the mother of nine children — Jennifer, Stephanie, Christopher, Elizabeth, Melissa, Dan, Vladimir, Michelle and Tessa. Six of them are adopted and have some sort of disability, either down syndrome, spina bifida or a spinal cord injury. She and her husband Bill were both always interested in the adoption of special needs children. When they saw an ad in the pennysaver about adoption, they knew it was time.
“Before we were married we talked about adopting. There are a lot of kids out there who needed homes. Then, to adopt a special needs kid, it is something different, but something we always wanted to do … Our kids are perfect to us, they just do things a little differently,” Wheeler said.
When someone told Wheeler to go to a track and field practice specifically for special needs children, she and her family went there on a whim. From then on the family was hooked, getting involved in as many adaptive sports as possible.
While her children were doing these sports, Wheeler would take pictures. Ever since Wheeler was given a camera in eighth grade, photography was something she always did. When her children got older, and as the technology got better, she was able to focus more on her photography.
“I had always taken a camera with me when the kids were doing their meets. Everyone came to me because they wanted my pictures … my equipment got better as we were going along … I started taking pictures of the kids at nationals; and that is where it really started picking up,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler now volunteers for many adaptive sports organizations, by giving them photos to use for free. She has given her photos to Adaptive Sports USA, the Tri-State Wheelchair & Ambulatory Athletic Association, of which she is on the Board of Trustees, and many coaches trying to promote their programs.
She also started to sell her photography and put them in shows, though it did take awhile for Wheeler to get the confidence to do so. However, she started being accepted in shows and winning awards at exhibitions, and that is how the Markeim Arts Center in Haddonfield got her name.
At the exhibition, appropriately named “Adaptive Sports,” Wheeler’s work will be displayed, featuring all kinds of athletes and sports individuals with disabilities or special needs are involved in. They do everything from rowing to basketball to track and field to swimming, some in field chairs or with the use of prosthetics.
“In some pictures, you can’t even tell that the person has a disability,” Wheeler said.
She also is including quotes from the athletes and why these sports are important to them. It is a juried exhibition featuring artists who have submitted meaningful works of art and photographs that capture the beauty and self-expression of humans amid even the most difficult circumstances. Wheeler’s children Christopher and Melissa have both submitted work for this exhibition.
To learn more about the exhibitions, visit www.markeimartscenter.org.
To see more of Wheeler’s work, go to www.joanwheelerphotography.com. Wheeler would also like to help families and individuals looking to get involved in adaptive sports, for those of any age. She said to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org if interested.
“‘Adaptive Sports’ gives people an idea of what the sports are about and hopefully will educate people and inspire them to be involved either as volunteers or a new athlete,” Wheeler said. “There is so much out there for anyone. If you’re interested in a sport, we can find it.”