Feature Article - October 2013
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Sports for Everyone

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Adaptive Sports

By Brian Summerfield

A Lack of Options

Despite the overwhelming similarity between the portions of the population with and without disabilities, and the extensive capabilities of both groups, they are different in one important respect: opportunities for recreational and competitive sport. This is something that Mary Ellen Whitney, CEO and founder of STRIDE Adaptive Sports, an organization devoted to providing those kinds of opportunities to younger athletes with special needs, knows all about.

Whitney started the organization back in the mid-1980s as a skiing instructional program for young people with disabilities, and she ran it for more than two decades as a volunteer while serving as a full-time adaptive physical education teacher and PE instructor at a public school in New York state.

In 2006, she was offered a grant to leave her teaching position and run STRIDE full time. She has since added volunteer staff and expanded programs, and now offers 16 sports in more than 20 locations throughout New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

STRIDE tends to focus on "lifetime" activities that are individual-oriented because, as Whitney pointed out, "After school, where are they going to find 10 other players who can be part of a team sport? It's going to be hard.

"Typical kids have lots and lots of extracurricular activities," she added. "But the kids I was working with [at the school] had none of those opportunities. They'd just get on their bus after school and go home. [Public schools] don't allow students to participate in their own [athletic] programs. It's not intentional discrimination. It's an intertwined mess of reasons."

One of those reasons is a lack of resources to devote to specialized equipment, Whitney said. Gear for many sports is pricey for regular participants, and when you throw disabilities into the mix, it can get very costly. "If you're doing a specialized sport like sit-down skiing or hockey, that can be incredibly expensive," she said.

Additionally, there may be some initial hesitation on the part of potential participants. "Many disabled athletes don't seek out the opportunity," Whitney said. "With some of these disabilities, it's very hard to get them involved."

Spreading the Word

None of the challenges to implementing and maintaining adaptive sports programs are insurmountable. Education and awareness for the general population—and particularly among other athletes and those who administer athletics programs and facilities—are important tools for overcoming these obstacles, Clark said.

"The potential is unlimited," she said. "It's just the focus hasn't been there. Once people understand how to do it, then it evolves and is sustained."

In this respect, institutions such as the Paralympics and the Wounded Warriors Project have been invaluable. "Wounded Warriors has really worked out well, because it's really put the whole [adaptive sports] concept out there in the public," Clark said. "Sports is one of the things that has really helped with their rehab."

Another key aspect of growing an adaptive sports program is marketing existing offerings for that specific group, Nowak said. To that end, the VA's website (www.va.gov/adaptivesports) provides a list of locations that offer sports therapy activities specifically targeted for veterans.

"You need to get the word out. Disabled athletes are always looking for opportunities, because there aren't a lot of opportunities for us," Nowak said.

Also, Clark recommends reaching out to physical rehabilitation centers and hospitals. "Tell them you have a program and that you'd like to work with them," she said. "With that connection comes the specialist. Most of the time, they embrace getting their patients out into a social environment."