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Sports for Everyone

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Adaptive Sports

By Brian Summerfield

Understanding Needs and Wants

As you develop an adaptive sports program, it's critical to keep in mind that "the disabled" are not a monolithic group who will respond to a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, for younger participants who have likely had a disability all of their lives, an element of rewards and recognition is important, Whitney said.

"The building of self-esteem is something we take for granted," she explained. "Kids with special needs don't get recognition, especially in sports. I realized early on when working with kids with special needs how important it was for them to get a trophy."

However, that likely wouldn't work for a group of wounded military vets, who would feel uncomfortable being singled out in this fashion. "You need to push them as athletes," Nowak said. "You need to treat them no differently from others."

Additionally, don't be susceptible to what Nowak calls the 'Field of Dreams' fallacy—assuming that if you simply produce the program, they'll participate in it. For example, if you have seated volleyball scheduled on, say, a Tuesday afternoon, many of the people who would otherwise take part in it won't show up because they're working just like the rest of the population, Nowak said. "You can't build it and hope they come," he said. "You have to find out when they can come."

Another part of avoiding the Field of Dreams mistake involves finding out which kinds of adaptive sports programs they want instead of just giving them what you think they want. Many disabled athletes, particularly the younger ones, today are getting into the same cutting-edge regimens as other fitness enthusiasts.

"Younger disabled athletes are changing the game," Nowak said. "Look at your growing population who are going to be participating in adaptive sports. What are their demands? We have amputees doing CrossFit who could compete with [non-disabled] athletes. We're having to adjust to that."

Bringing People Together

While it's great if it happens, the purpose of adaptive sports is not to create elite, high-performing athletes, Nowak said. Ultimately, the spirit of these programs should one of bringing people together around activities that are as inclusive as possible. That may mean bringing in different kinds of disabled athletes, or even non-disabled participants.

For example, Whitney's STRIDE organization often works with Wounded Warriors to put injured veterans with acquired disabilities together with children with natural disabilities. "They learn from each other," she added. "I'm looking more and more at putting the two together for purposeful learning."

In Nowak's VA programs, there's an emphasis on getting family members involved. "If the veteran's doing kayaking, we have the family member kayaking with them or next to them," he said. "There's therapeutic value in that.

"Veterans understand the word 'mission.' By redefining their mission through adaptive sports, it changes their lives. It helps them get reengaged with and open up to their spouses."

Clark agrees.

"It's a rehabilitation tool," she said. "All sports do that because people are all of a sudden playing with other people. It brings them into a social environment. It takes people from exclusion to inclusion."