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."

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 ( 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."

Finding New and Existing Resources

Special training and equipment are required for many adaptive sports programs, but not all of them. Nowak recommended starting with the question: "What do I have that would work right now?" Basketball, swimming and weightlifting are examples of sports that require minimal—if any—additional accessories for most disabled participants. They're also commonly found in recreational and athletics facilities.

For specialized equipment and training needed in specific sports, you should research which organizations exist to facilitate participation for people with disabilities in those activities. Sometimes these will be associations devoted specifically to disabled athletes, and sometimes it will be well-known institutions within the sport itself. For example, in addition to Clark's organization, the PGA and LPGA offer resources for mentally and physically challenged athletes who want to play golf.

Whatever you do, don't feel like you have to build up a new program from scratch.

"Don't reinvent the wheel," Whitney advised. "Partner with an organization that already exists that may have the equipment and have the assets trained. Use community programs that exist and piggyback on them. Bring the experience into your facility."

Most of the time, these institutions will be more than happy to help you get a new adaptive sports program off the ground.

"If you're working with veterans, we're here to help you," Nowak said. "We will do whatever we can to help veterans in your communities get engaged with sports. If you're having trouble finding resources, let us know."

"We open our arms to people who have the heart, passion and drive, and we train them," Whitney said. "Then we send them off to other organizations to get certified."

Understanding the 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 be 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."

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