Fighting for the Rights of Wheelchair Athletes
The Birmingham Family is among Canada’s most staunch supporters of wheelchair tennis. Through the Tennis Matters campaign, the family has given over $1,000,000 to provide Canada’s wheelchair tennis athletes with enhanced funding and competitive opportunities.
Their commitment started in 2003 when they agreed to assist with the hosting costs for the Canadian Open Wheelchair Tennis Championships in Stoney Creek, Ontario and provide travel grants for Canadian players to participate in the event.
“I am involved in tennis and tennis umpiring,” said Betty. “That is how I found out about wheelchair tennis. When I was umpiring I found out that the Canadian Open was losing their major sponsor and I felt horribly about it. I came home and talked to Bruce and that is when we decided to help out. You just have to go and watch a wheelchair tennis match and you will understand.”
Since then, their generosity has expanded to new heights. In 2006, they put forth funding for the Canadian National Wheelchair Tennis Championships, which were renamed the Birmingham Nationals in their honour. This money goes towards tournament enhancements, travel grants for national and provincial team players and $15,000 of prize money for the competitors. In addition to this they support the Birmingham Canadian Classic, formerly known as the ITF 2 Canadian Open
They also created the Birmingham Family Tennis Chair Award, which is presented annually to a deserving wheelchair tennis athlete for the purchase of a new tennis chair to help their professional development.
“I feel very strongly about wheelchair tennis,” said Betty. “I know some of the wheelchair athletes. They are remarkable people. I appreciate them so very much. They are incredible to be doing what they are doing. They have to work extremely hard and it is a lot more difficult for them. They have an immense obstacle that they have all been able to overcome and we feel that they should be rewarded for it.”
The Birmingham’s decided to focus their efforts towards Canada’s Paralympic success by creating the Birmingham Excellence Fund, a total of $250,000 will be given starting in 2008 through to the 2012 Paralympic Games to assist with coaching and training support for prospective Canadian Paralympic tennis athletes.
“When Canada came out with their medal money for the able-bodied athletes, we decided to put forth for the wheelchair athletes as well,” explained Betty. “We need to build. We have some very good players and there is nowhere for them to go but up. There are now a couple of young players who will be able to concentrate on tennis because they have a little more money. They can go to tournaments that they weren’t able to go to before. I know that there will come a time when we do really well on the international stage.”
Last year Bruce became seriously ill and one of the family’s greatest concerns was the future of wheelchair tennis. They understood the important role they play and that their support is key to the sport. Not only did the family commit to a new 5 year pledge that increased their support by 25%, but arranged for immediate full payment of that pledge prior to Bruce’s passing in July 2010.
During the 2010 Rogers Cup presented by National Bank, Tennis Canada named The Birmingham Officials Lounge in honour of Betty’s work as an official and in memory of Bruce. Their commitment has raised the profile of wheelchair tennis and provided Canadian athletes a better opportunity to compete at the highest levels internationally. We hear over and over again from the athletes how the Birmingham’s generosity has changed their lives. Sarah Hunter, top quad tennis player for Canada and ranked No. 5 in the world said it best, “The Birmingham’s have provided us with instrumental resources needed to succeed, they are truly an inspiration to Paralympic athletes from coast to coast.”