Honoring Eli Wolff, a leading pioneer for athletes with disabilities

February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month (JDAIM)

By Stacey Spencer • Disability Services Manager

To commemorate the 15th anniversary of Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), I would like to introduce and recognize Eli Wolff, an amazing disability rights advocate that we lost in 2023.

Eli was born in Los Angeles on April 22, 1977, with a hole in his heart, and underwent heart surgery to repair it shortly before his 2nd birthday. When he did not immediately awake after surgery, doctors realized he had a stroke, which left him partially paralyzed on the left side of his body; he would have to re-learn how to walk.

Despite these obstacles, he never let his health condition define him or limit his dreams of playing sports. To combat the teasing and feelings of exclusion in school, Eli found solace in sports, specifically soccer. “Soccer was the place where I could really feel free, a safe place,” Eli told the Boston Globe in 2007. “Even at an early age, I was in the zone when I was running. My body would loosen up.”

His passion for soccer continued through school and beyond. He was a founding member of the men’s soccer CP National Team (for athletes with cerebral palsy, stroke, and TBI); a member of the U.S. soccer team at the 1996 and 2004 Paralympic Games; and was a founding member of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s Disability Soccer Committee.

Soccer was not his only passion – he devoted himself to advocacy on behalf of people and athletes with disabilities. His unwavering advocacy led to Major League Baseball (MLB) changing the name of its “Disabled List” to “Injured Reserve List” in 2019. This was no easy feat, and he was soon known as “the man who changed baseball.” 

Eli’s determined advocacy for inclusive language in the sports world had a profound impact on Major League Baseball. Eli realized that other major sports didn’t call their injury lists “disabled lists.” The NFL and NHL called the players’ injury list the “injured reserve list,” and the NHL and NBA used the term “inactive list.”

MLB’s “disabled list” was coined in 1915; Eli realized the jargon was dated and worked with the league to promote language that created a welcoming and inclusive environment for all its players and fans.

His reasoning was that using the term “disabled” for players who were simply injured supports the misconception that people with disabilities are not able to participate or compete in sports, perpetuating stereotypes about individuals with disabilities. After over 100 years of labeling it the “disabled list,” MLB renamed it the “injured reserve list.”

In addition to his sports accomplishments, Eli had many other professional successes. A graduate of Brown University, Eli earned a master’s degree in Olympics studies from the German Sport University of Cologne. He was an instructor with the sport management program at the University of Connecticut and co-directed the Power of Sport Lab, a platform to fuel and magnify innovation, inclusion, and social change through sport. He also co-founded the organizations Disability in Sport International, Athletes for Human Rights, and the Olympism Project. (https://www.dignitymemorial.com)

Nothing made Eli prouder and happier than sharing his adventures in sports and travelling the world with his wife, Cheri Blauwet, and two young children. He served as an educator, champion, athlete, guiding force, devoted husband, father, and friend to many. Eli’s efforts and impact on MLB is a powerful example of how perseverance and advocacy can lead to systematic change.

He built his career on advocating for athletes with disabilities. He devoted his life to making sure people with disabilities like him could participate in sports, fully and joyfully. Thank you, Eli, for everything you did and accomplished, and for being such a strong voice and for disabled athletes everywhere.

During the month of February, JFCS and Jewish communities around the world observe and commemorate Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), and this is the 15th anniversary. The mission of JDAIM is to unite Jewish communities worldwide to raise awareness and champion the rights of all Jews to be accepted and included in all aspects of Jewish life.

For more information, contact Stacey Spencer, Disability Services Manager, at sspencer@jfcsmpls.org or 952-542-4845.

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