If you grew up when playing an afternoon game of baseball, basketball, kickball or street hockey was the quintessential rite of childhood, you’re not alone. Most kids, whether they were the athletic type or the ones who spent most of their time indoors with a video controller in their hand, still have fond memories of a neighborhood sport game at some point in their childhood.
But for kids with disabilities, not so much. While the Department of Disability and Human Development recommend youths get 60 minutes of physical activity per day most days of the week, kids with disabilities aren’t logging in near this level.
And unfortunately that means they are less active and more obese than their non-disabled peers. What’s more, the combination of health risks associated with inactivity and obesity present serious health concerns for the disabled youth population. Studies show one of the most important challenges is finding ways to increase physical activity and fitness for youth with disabilities in their communities.
“Kids with disabilities benefit from activities, physical activities and sports just like kids that are typically developing,” says Mary Kate Morgan, PT, DPT, a therapist working with disabled youth at Larabida Children’s Hospital in Chicago.
But the fact is, children with physical or mental disabilities face challenges joining a sport team, and communities with programs open to this population may be hard to come by.
Yet the same camaraderie, self-esteem, sense of belonging and accomplishment that kids receive from being involved in sports benefits all kids.
Morgan stresses some of the physiological benefits include improving cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance, flexibility and coordination. Some of the psychological benefits include improving self-concept, self-esteem, being able to relate to other kids, improving friendships, as well as improving their overall quality of life.
MODIFIED OR MAINSTREAM?
“Providing kids with ability to participate in sports even if they are adaptive sports still help those kids reach those physical and psychological benefits,” says Morgan. Because kids may not be able to participate in a typical gym class or a typical soccer team, if they are doing modified gym or modified sports they are learning they can be just as effective and can build camaraderie with their peers and teammates as well as empower themselves. They learn they are in charge of their bodies and that physical activity is fun and good for them: body, mind and spirit.
Programs like Special Olympics are for youth who may have a cognizant or physical disability, and that can mean anything from walking with a walker to needing assistance to propel their wheelchair. In situations where a disability might be more severe, their ability to participate in sports is just as important, but they may need an aid, teacher or a volunteer to help them participate. Sports teams that are modified include everything from wheelchair basketball where the hoops are lowered to a rubberized baseball diamond so kids in chairs can wheel the bases.
Integrated teams may also be a possibility in some communities where typically developing kids play alongside kids with disabilities. Again, extra aids and volunteers are the norm on these teams. Some sport teams may assess skill level and have kids aged from 6 to 15 on the same team who play on a mostly even proficiency.
It’s important to remember that kids able to play on integrated teams within their ability level shouldn’t focus on competition but rather on learning the sport, having fun and making friends. Emotional development like leadership skills, following instructions and team fellowship are important aspects of being involved in sports.
“I feel like I was one of those children who was not that good at sports but what my family did was encourage me to participate and keep my head high, and even though I may not have been the best at it I was definitely most spirited,” says Morgan. Remind kids that participating on the team is not necessarily to become the number one scorer or shooter but to learn the sport, improve their own performance, make friends and have a good time.
Sports like track, swimming, golf and tennis may be ideal for kids with disabilities who may not have the emotional wherewithal to handle the compromises and disappointments of a team effort, but can focus more on their own performance—besting their own time, improving their own score, or competing against a single opponent.
There are a lot of barriers to participating in sports for kids with disabilities, and finding the right sport, the right coach, and the right team may be challenging. Does the sport have the right adaptive equipment the child might need? If it’s an integrated team, is the teammate culture right for your child? Families should use whatever resources they have at their disposal for leads including their pediatrician, teachers, therapists and other health providers.
“At Larabida, we have different organizations that help introduce kids to different sports. We have a company called to Dare to Try, and they give kids an opportunity to try adaptive bikes and give kids a chance to see what it’s like to do triathlons,” says Morgan.
There are also summer and vacation day camps that provide kids with special needs activities they may not usually get a chance to try like archery, kayaking or hiking for instance.
Make sure your child has had a sports physical and has the go ahead to play the sport. And look for coaches and volunteers with some experience with disabled youth. Talk to the coach to explain what disabilities your child has. For integrated teams, teammates should also be aware of the child’s limitations. Maybe he can bat but needs a substitute base runner. Perhaps she needs more frequent rest breaks. Everyone should be on the same page.
‘It’s important to build habits of being physically active because sometimes with kids with disabilities it gets even harder to be physically active as they get heavier and older and their tolerance to exercise can decrease, so encouraging it for the long run is important,” says Morgan.