Special Needs

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Adapted, Unified Sports are Trending Up: Are Event Owners Responding?

4 Sep, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

In a week when all the news seemed to be bad – with a downward trend in high school sports participation and a lot of negative press about football – there is a gleam of optimism. There were some increases in participation, but none so significant as those registered in the adapted and Unified sports programs.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), the various adapted sports sponsored by schools across the country gained 4,102 participants, while Unified sports participation increased 2,938.

It’s a cause for celebration – but it’s also a wake-up call to event owners who have not yet considered adding new registration categories in their events.

The NFHS survey identified three sports where schools offered unified programs (in other words, programs that combined student-athletes both with and without disabilities): basketball, flag football and track & field.

Templates for unified programs exist in other team sports, including cheer (The Sparke Effect) and baseball (Bambino Buddy-Ball, offered by the Babe Ruth League). Both programs offer information on how to get started, and in the case of The Sparkle Effect, information on cheer uniform grants.

And, say organizers, it’s one of the most rewarding things around.

“We ask our kids who are playing to be the buddies to these kids who might not get outside, get fresh air or play the game,” says Rob Faherty, VP National Commissioner of the Babe Ruth League, which promulgates Buddy-Ball. “And when you watch it, it’s just classic. At first, there’s all this apprehension. The kids who’ve never played before are nervous and they’re afraid to go out on the field. One inning later, we have kids all over the place. Everyone wins something in that event.”

The Special Olympics has noted a rise in inclusionary and unified sports programs with, at last count, more than 1.4 million people worldwide participating. Special Olympics notes that among the organizations that have showcased unified sports are the NBA, Major League Soccer (MLS), Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), NCAA’s Division III, ESPN's X Games Aspen, the NFHS and the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA).

Adapted sports, defined as sports with special divisions for, competitions for, or rules for, individuals with disabilities, seen in the NFHS survey are basketball, bocce (indoor) bowling, cornhole, floor hockey, football, golf, handball, soccer, softball, strength training, tennis, track and volleyball.

It’s hardly the limit of activities, though. Disabled Sports USA (profiled here in SDM) has a nationwide network through which over 60,000 youth, wounded warriors and adults are served annually, using over 123 community-based chapters across 41 states nationwide, with programs in over 50 different sports.

Multiple event owners and national governing bodies also are active proponents of adapted sports. As an example, USA Triathlon’s program, USA Paratriathlon, offers information to event directors interested in instituting special divisions. The United States Tennis Association also promotes wheelchair tennis programs.

The prevalence of individuals with disabilities in sports has also been noted in a recent report, which found that more than half of individuals with disabilities have increased their participation in sports over the past five years.

Incorporating events for those with disabilities creates better registration opportunities, which in turn, can lead to a new revenue stream. At the same time, it enhances relations with the community and may bring in new sponsors.

Now, advocates say, it's time for event owners to step up to accommodate those with disabilities who want to participate in sports. Adding special divisions and accommodations is a good start. Also essential to remember is that as the population of those with disabilities in sports increases, so will spectators with similar challenges. Parking, concessions, rest rooms and other facilities must be carefully examined for compliance.

Looking for potential athletes and perhaps spectators can be challenging. While these days, privacy concerns may preclude many organizations from giving out the names and contact information of individuals who use wheelchairs, for example, the same organizations may be willing to allow your event to put up flyers or posters. If they have a list-serv, it may be possible for you to have information about your event blasted out.

The media also may also be able to help. Send out press releases (and follow up with phone calls) to local newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations.

You can also reach out to veterans’ groups, including those specifically addressing the needs of recently returned soldiers who have suffered injuries, such as the Wounded Warrior Project.

Don't overlook social media -- but don't rely on it to the exclusion of reaching out to other channels, including the following:

V.A. Hospitals:  contact the director of rehab services, or the director of physical therapy

Rehabilitation Hospitals: Contact person - Director of recreation, Therapeutic recreation specialist

Shriners Hospitals for Children: Contact person - Child life director

Physical Therapists/Occupational Therapists

Wheelchair Dealers and Durable Medical Supply Companies

Disabled Sports Programs: Contact the directors of recreation at park and rec programs, YMCAs, community centers and more

Churches and Youth Groups

College Campuses: There may be a Disabled Students Program, or the Student Affairs office may be able to distribute information

Schools: Many have adaptive physical education departments who can pass along information

Amputee Centers

Paralyzed Veterans of America

Outpatient Clinics:  Contact person - Director of physical therapy, or similar

Support Groups:  Check for those who address individuals with challenges such as spina bifida, spinal cord injuries or those who are amputees

Fitness Centers:  Many facilities offer personal trainers, and those may already work with individuals with mobility limitations and can talk up your program. In addition, some fitness centers have integrated physical therapy practices

Centers for Independent Living:  Contact person - center director

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