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Sports for Everyone

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Adaptive Sports

By Brian Summerfield

Chris Nowak was one of the few, the proud, the brave. A Leatherneck. A member of the doggedly tough "shoestring service," the U.S. Marine Corps.

But his life changed dramatically in 1985, when the Marines and the U.S. Army participated in joint combat training exercises in Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. Unbeknownst to Nowak and his fellow Marines, the Army used live ammunition for the training. In a simulated ambush, one of Nowak's legs was severely wounded and had to be amputated.

Understandably, Nowak was initially devastated by this tragic accident. But he was able come back from the emotional despair it caused through adaptive sports—i.e., athletics for those with mental and physical disabilities. He said those early experiences took his mind off of his injury and gave him hope for the future. Today, Nowak is the national director of the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) Sports Programs and Special Events division.

"It changed my perspective on life," he said. "You're not focusing on your injury or disability; you're focusing on the activity. That's why it's a valuable tool. I decided my injury's not going to define me; I'm going to define my injury. I saw there was no reason why I couldn't be gainfully employed, no reason why I couldn't achieve things. And that's the perspective I bring to work every day."

These days, there are tens of thousands of veterans who have returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan who are suffering from a range of ailments, from brain injuries to post-traumatic stress disorder. On top of that, a rising awareness of the nature and variety of natural and acquired disabilities across the entire population has led to a corresponding increase in the number of adaptive sports programs.

Still, the offerings have not kept up with the need. There are various reasons for this, including misconceptions about the participants and lack of resources. If you're interested in serving this growing group by bringing adaptive sports to your recreational or athletics facility—or if you'd like to expand your existing programs—read on.

Who's the Audience?

One of the most critically acclaimed films of 2005 was Murderball, which took its title from the colorful colloquial name given to the sport of wheelchair rugby. The documentary told the story of the U.S. wheelchair rugby team's quest for a gold medal in the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens.

A common reaction to the movie was one of surprise at the actions and attitudes of the players. They yelled and cursed in joy and frustration during games. They cut up and talked trash. They drank and partied together afterward. But above all, they participated in their sport with enthusiasm and dedication. In other words, they weren't very different from other athletes of all stripes, from professionals playing before thousands of fans in arenas to regular guys getting in their weekend pickup game of basketball down at the local rec center.

That realization is important when it comes to adaptive sports, said Betsy Clark, Ph.D., president and founder of the National Alliance for Accessible Golf and an adjunct professor of sports management at Stetson University in Central Florida. The Alliance works to promote awareness of the various benefits of accessible golf across the United States.

"Individuals with disabilities are more like people with regular abilities than not," she said. "A disability is something that could happen to anybody. The main misconception is that a disability is not natural. It's different, but it's also natural."

According to Clark, about one out of five people in the United States has a disability of some kind. Virtually everyone knows of at least one other person with some sort of disability, whether it's a mental or physical impairment. Most of these people who fall into this category live full lives and manage to get along just fine with minimal assistance. But terms like "disabled" and "handicapped" tend to conjure up visuals of individuals who can't move anywhere without a wheelchair or are so mentally challenged that they can hardly dress themselves.

The reasons for this are obvious when you think about them—for example, consider the symbol for a handicapped parking space or memorable portrayals of what was up until very recently referred to as "mental retardation" in popular films and television shows.

The main problem with these cultural markers, which are often well-meaning, is that they focus on the wrong things, Clark said. "People should think more about the abilities than disabilities," she explained. "I think people stumble on the word 'disability.' Once you recognize all people have abilities, that opens the door to new possibilities."