Sports Are Possible

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There was a day when it was inconceivable to parents of children with special needs that their son or daughter may participate in competitive sports and extracurricular athletic activities. Luckily, those days are over.

Participating in sports, no longer an impossible dream

It’s not hard for most of us to remember the first time we performed above expectations during a sporting event.

That first home run, slam dunk, cannon ball, or goal is a moment memories are made of. When these feats of athleticism occurred, it put a skip in our step. Making the team, practicing plays, earning starter position, and even being benched builds character and accomplishment. Losing, winning, and improving creates a sense of achievement. Try-outs, locker room pep talks, district finals, state championships, team fundraising events, and award banquets build team, pride, sportsmanship and a sense of belonging.

It’s a feeling most parents want their children to experience.

For parents that have a child with a physical impairment, sports may seem like an activity that is not in the realm of possibilities.

Although there was a time that this might have been true, adaptive sports continue to blaze a highway paved with accessibility and inclusion for children with special needs. For every child, the goal is to make an adaptation, a modification, or an accommodation so they can participate to their fullest ability. Participation gives kids a shot at the thrill of victory, or defeat, but more so being a part of something bigger than their disability. All children can develop a new, fun pastime.

Beyond the sidelines

Too often in the past, children with disabilities were forced to the sidelines in recreational and interscholastic sports. Once upon a time, a child with disabilities was given a “special” assignment to satisfy participation goals or class requirements. They were relegated to the sidelines to observe while being given a grade “A” for participation. They were given a title, like captain, with little involvement. They dutifully attended all practices, cheered on the sidelines at every game, secretly dreamed to be given an opportunity to play, and were invited to all celebratory award ceremonies to see their teammates receive accolades.

Today, being assigned as the basketball team’s water boy or girl likely feels like a consolation prize. Although honorable, being awarded as the team captain just for having an impairment might seem a step in a positive direction. And, being able to land the dunk in the last second of the last game might provide impressive YouTube moments worth sharing. But, the cheers and tears of joy in the audience, not to mention the parent’s appreciation, beg us as a society to ask “Why haven’t they been able to play in all the games?” Would we be as excited if an able-bodied child was played in the last minute of the last game after being benched the whole season? Does this demonstrate disparity?

But, parents of children with special needs know in their hearts their children are capable of more. It’s tantamount to taking an able-bodied child to the carnival and not allowing them to ride the rides or be given coins to play, week after week, season after season. Every child deserves the opportunity, equally.

The situations, sadly, still take place even though such solutions are considered outmoded. Progress is often stalled under the guise that accommodating a child with a disability is cost prohibitive. But, at what cost is it to society if we don’t involve children with special needs? There are 2.8 million children, age 5 to 17, in the public school system that have a disability.

For individuals with severe disability, participating in sports is still possible

If a parent has a child that is severely disabled, there may be the temptation to write sports off all together. But, children with a severe disability take an active role in several sports by using a little assistance and a lot of ingenuity.

Most parents are surprised to learn that there are many sports that can be modified to fit the needs and interests of people with little or no mobility. One caveat that parents must heed is that they, or another person, may want to take part in the athletic avocation with their child.

People with severe Cerebral Palsy have taken part in marathons, recreational and competitive swimming, hockey, and even one of the world’s most challenging events, the Ironman Triathlon.

Aquatic therapy is popular amongst those with severe disability due to the weightless nature of the water that allows caregivers to be able to physically support their children (with or without the assistance of therapeutic supports) – which can be fun for the child and therapeutic on their muscles.

If a child uses a power wheelchair and has enough ability to operate it, hockey sticks can be affixed to the chair, which can then shoot the puck. If the child is unable to operate the wheelchair themselves another person can manipulate his or her chair to assist.

Buddying up – with a parent, a sibling, or a friend – opens up innumerable possibilities for sport and recreation for children with severe disabilities.

Another popular idea is to invest in a racing wheelchair for the child. If a parent, sibling, or friend is willing to lace up their own running shoes, he or she can place the child in a running wheelchair and compete as a team in marathons, triathlons and walks. Father and son team Rick and Dick Hoyt and siblings Cayden and Cody Long are inspirational examples.

There’s also the prospect of involving a child in a sport without actually playing the sport. If a child is interested in baseball, make it a tradition to go to opening day every year or make a celebratory production out of sports night for game viewing at home. If a child can use a computer, even if only through eye technology, there are a number of computer games they can play and compete online and off.

Other opportunities may involve attending an athlete’s public appearance, writing an athlete’s fan club, attending an athletic association fundraiser, or collecting sports paraphernalia. Some may opt to make a nightly ritual of reading a chapter in an athlete’s biography, or watching sports related movies.

For some, including the child with special needs at the family table during a board game, and encouraging their fullest participation may mean they roll the dice and mark their score. But, if that’s not possible another may roll for them, ask for input through their communication device, and mark their progress to keep them actively involved in the process. The important part is incorporating the child in play and providing opportunities for them to participate to their fullest ability.

The object of adaptive sports is to deploy adaptation, modification or accommodation to meet a child’s interest to participate to the best of their abilities.

If there is an interest in a sport, a team, or an athlete there are infinite ways to fulfill a child’s interest and bring quality of life to a child’s day.