Bowling for the Physically Handicapped

Ronald C. Adams

In various forms, bowling has been played for thousands of years. One of the first countries to introduce a sport similar to our modern-day bowling was Germany in the early 1300's. The Germans rolled or threw stones at wooden clubs called kegles, and bowlers today are still often called keglers. It is believed that the Dutch were the first to introduce bowling to America when they brought the sport with them to New Amsterdam (New York City) in the 1600's. The American Bowling Congress (ABC) was organized in 1895, and today is still the major governing body of the sport.

A Sport for the Physically Handicapped

Bowling for the physically handicapped grew in prominence during the years 1946-1948 when the Veterans Administration hospitals were overflowing with disabled veterans. During this period the sport was particularly popular with paraplegics and amputees. However, bowling for the more severely handicapped was not widely accepted until the late 1950's when certain assistive devices were introduced for individuals handicapped by muscle weakness and upper-extremity involvement. Wheelchair bowling, which is conducted in accordance with American Bowling Congress rules, was introduced on a formal basis in the National Wheelchair Games in New York in 1957. Bowling for the blind originated in the New York and Philadelphia areas, the first tournament having been held in 1948. The American Blind Bowling Association, organized in 1951, has approximately 1,250 members and all its tournaments are sanctioned by the American Bowling Congress. Blind bowling is most popular in the mid-Atlantic states, and only within the last decade has it started to grow in prominence throughout the Midwest and Southern states.

Today, bowling is one of the most popular indoor sports for the handicapped. This is especially true because the game can be played with some degree of success by almost everyone, regardless of the extent of physical disability.


The object of the game is to roll a ball down a lane and attempt to knock down 10 wooden pins. A game consists of 10 frames. Each bowler rolls his ball twice in each frame, unless he scores a strike (when all 10 pins are knocked down on the first ball). The bowler who has the highest score at the end of 10 frames is declared the winner.

Tenpin bowling is the standard and most popular game in the United States. Duckpin bowling is another version of the game which is played mainly in the eastern United States. (It requires a ball 5 in. or less in diameter, and pins that are approximately 9 in. high.)


Proper Attire

Every bowler, except those confined to a wheelchair, should wear special bowling shoes. Loose, nonconfining clothing is recommended.


The following specifications of the ABC govern bowling equipment:

  1. Ball: Weight - maximum 16 lb.
    Circumference - 27 in.
    Diameter - approximately 8 1/2 in. (8.59)
  2. Pins: Height - 15 in.
    Diameter at base - 2 1/4 in.
    Diameter at belly - approximately 5 in.
    Weights - 3 lb., 2 oz. to 3 lb., 10 oz.

The pins are set in a 3-ft. triangle, measuring from center of pin to center of pin. The closest any two pins are to each other is 12 in. center to center.

Bowling balls range in weight from 8 to 16 lb. Each has three holes in which the bowler places his thumb and first two fingers. The thumb hole should be comfortably loose; the finger holes comfortably snug.

How to Bowl

Ambulatory Bowlers

The instructions are given for a right-handed bowler. The procedures would be reversed for a left-handed bowler.

1. Pendulum swing. The first fundamental in bowling is to learn the pendulum swing. The bowler assumes a stationary position on the pit side of the foul line with the left foot slightly ahead of the right, both feet straight. The feet are 4 to 6 inches apart. (Left-handers take the opposite stance with the right foot forward.) The player stoops over, his feet in position, and fully extends the arm, with the ball hanging like a pendulum. He leans forward, bends his knees slightly, and starts the pendulum motion by swinging the arm straight forward, back, and forward.

2. Release. The ball should be released on the forward swing, just over the foul line. The bowler concentrates on keeping the thumb pointed forward. If the ball should curve left or right into the gutter, it should be directed at an angle to the boards to compensate for the curve.

3. Delivery. The method of rolling the ball down the alley varies, but most bowlers use the four-step delivery or approach. The starting point is usually about 12 feet from the foul line, but this will vary considerably with ambulatory bowlers who are handicapped by a lower-extremity involvement. A relaxed stance is taken at the starting point with ball held slightly above the waist. The approach rhythm is right-left-right-slide. The first step is with the right foot (left foot for left-handers), and the ball is pushed forward and down. As the left foot comes foward the ball goes into the backswing, and as the right foot comes forward the ball reaches the top of the backswing. The bowler goes into a slide on the left foot and starts the forward downswing and release.

Wheelchair Bowlers

The official rules of The National Wheelchair Athletic Association which govern wheelchair bowling competition are listed at the end of this report.

The basic concept of rolling the ball is the same as for the ambulatory bowler except that the approach is eliminated. Bowlers with good upper-extremity strength, who are confined to a wheelchair but able to throw the ball, will follow the same procedures regarding the pendulum swing and release already described.

If the wheelchair is not equipped with a removable arm rest, then a seat cushion is recommended to raise the bowler and enable him to develop a comfortable swing motion when delivering the ball. The wheelchair should be positioned so that the front pedals are 2 to 4 inches behind the foul line. The last important rule is that the brakes should be applied before bowling. In some situations, an assistant will be needed to hold the back of the wheelchair steady so that it will not move as the bowler releases the ball. The bowler must lean over the side of the wheelchair to permit the arm to swing freely when delivering the ball. A preliminary swing (or swings) is recommended to promote balance and aim before the actual throw.

Many wheelchair bowlers can retrieve the ball from the ball-return rack without assistance and carry the ball on their lap when returning to their position at the foul line. In some instances, due to the severity of the handicap, an assistant is required to help in this phase of bowling.

Assistive Devices

It is obvious that many physically disabled persons, particularly those with upper-limb involvement, would be denied an opportunity to participate in the sport of bowling unless certain assistive devices were available to compensate for their defect. Various types of adapted equipment to assist physically handicapped persons to compete in bowling have been developed recently. Three types will be discussed:

1. Bowling-Frame Unit (Designed by Abilities, Inc., Human Resources Center, Albertson, N.Y.)

This device (Fig. 1 ) was developed for disabled persons with little or no use of their arms. By centering the bowling frame in front of the lane, a person with severe physical disabilities can bowl without using his arms. The ball is placed at the highest point on the frame and, with a slight push, will roll down the frame and toward the bowling pins. The unit is not commercially available but may be duplicated by anyone who wishes to do so (Fig. 2 ).

2. Adapter-Pusher Device

This device (Fig. 3 , Fig. 4 , and Fig. 5 ) was originally designed for the wheelchair-bound bowler who is handicapped by lack of upper-extremity strength. The adapter-pusher can be used in two positions:

Front position: The device is positioned directly in front of the wheelchair, thus enabling the bowler to use both hands on the handle to push the ball down the lane.

Side Position: This is the recommended position. The device is held with one hand and positioned to the side of the wheelchair whence the ball is pushed down the lane.

The therapist or instructor will need to assist the bowler by retrieving the ball from the return rack and placing it in the "face" (front) of the pusher. The assistant must place the ball comfortably in the "face" and steady it until the bowler gives the command to "let go." At this instant, the bowler becomes independent and pushes the ball down the lane by extending his arm forward, remembering to keep a firm grip on the handle when completing the follow-through motion.

3. Handlebar-Extension Accessory

The handlebar-extension accessory (Fig. 6 ) is screwed into the handle of the adapter-pusher device. This can be done by fitting a piece of wood into the aluminum shaft so that the accessory can be used by ambulatory bowlers. The accessory can also be unscrewed and removed to allow wheelchair-bound bowlers to bowl without the aid of the handlebar. The handlebar-extension accessory was designed for ambulatory bowlers who are unable to throw an 8-lb. to 10-lb. bowling ball because of physical or medical reasons.

Description of the device:
  • The device is made from 3/8-in. pipe.
  • An L-shaped pipe fitting is used to attach the stabilizer to the shaft.
  • A T-shaped pipe fitting is used to attach the handlebar to the shaft.
  • The wooden handlebar is made from a 1 -in. dowel with holes drilled to fit a 3/8-in. pipe.

This article is concluded in the November 1970 issue of ICIB.

Ronald Adams is Director of Recreational Therapy and Adapted Physical Education Children's Rehabilitation Center, University of Virginia Hospital Charlottesville, Virginia