En Garde for Accessibility

New Equipment Allows Students Who Use Wheelchairs to Participate in Fencing Club

Épée in hand, Fencing Club Vice President Noah Hanssen ’23 lunges toward his opponent, twisting his body to avoid the rival swordsman’s swerves. He sneaks his weapon to his competitor’s side to record the touch, then immediately readies for the next round.

The bout is a blur of speedy skill—all performed while both fencers are seated.

This semester, the club debuted its new accessible frame, which holds two wheelchairs steady at the proper distance and angles so parafencers can safely compete.

“Hopefully, we can make our school more known for parafencing within the fencing community,” Hanssen says.

Hanssen, who has used a wheelchair since he was in a car accident at age 7, grew up wielding toy swords with his cousins as they imitated “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings” characters. He wanted to try fencing, but he could find accommodations only through historical fencing, which focuses more on the activity’s medieval and Renaissance origins rather than the sport-style fencing seen in the Olympics.

In high school, after connecting with a parafencing coach at the Tri-Weapon Fencing Club in Catonsville, Md., Hanssen shot up the ranks, training in Colorado Springs with the USA team and winning the national championship in saber.

When he transferred to UMD from Howard Community College in Fall 2021, he hoped to find a fencing community here—even without an accessible frame.

“‘Please just let me fence’ was kind of the spirit of my email (to the UMD Fencing Club),” Hanssen says. “But (they) wanted to make sure there was stuff in place for me.”

The frame, purchased with support from University Recreation and Wellness, adds to its accessible activities, like adaptive equipment at the Climbing Wall, wheelchair lifts and ramps in pools, and intramural goal ball, a seated version of soccer for visually impaired participants.

For now, Hanssen uses his fencing competition chair on one end while another of the club’s 50 members sits in his everyday chair on the other. The setup has been beneficial for injured fencers too, and remaining seated makes all club members focus more on their blade work.

It’s a significant improvement over what they’d been doing before: having members pull up a four-legged chair to fence Hanssen while seated, or even just fencing him while standing. The group hopes to eventually get another competition wheelchair and is exploring hosting “walk ‘n’ roll” tournaments, which allow both fencers and parafencers to compete.

“It’s a great sport, and we do have the accessibility now,” says Social Chair Catt Gagnon M.A.A. ’23. “Why not bring it to other folks as well?”


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