My Opinion – Be A Mentor

Participation in sports provides countless benefits for children, especially those with disabilities

Participation in sports provides countless benefits for children, especially those with disabilities

From the time I started swimming at age 5 and throughout my years swimming at the elite NCAA Division I level for Indiana University, being an athlete was an integral part of my life and truly defined me. It was my identity.  

It shouldn’t be any surprise that immediately following my spinal-cord injury (SCI) in 1991, I thought that identity was lost forever. However, thanks to my recreational therapist and a tight network of friends, I spent the next decade regaining that identity as an elite athlete and had a helluva good time doing it. Competing at the highest level before and after my SCI helped me develop skills that I continue to use in life. 

Sure, there were challenges, such as acquiring the right equipment, dealing with race directors who didn’t want to recognize a wheelchair division, etc. I had the resources to overcome those challenges. However, there were many others who weren’t so lucky, and most of them were kids. My woes were speed bumps compared to the roadblocks that some junior athletes faced.

According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality in a 2005 survey, an estimated 83,000 people under age 15 were using a wheelchair or similar device. Meanwhile, the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability reports that students with a physical impairment in public and secondary schools are excluded from having access to participate in athletic competitions. This systemic exclusion has resulted in physical activity levels that are 4.5 times lower for children with a disability, and we all know what that means.  

The consequences of inactivity for these children places them at a higher risk of obesity and other physical health conditions. In addition, the psychosocial effects of inactivity lead to low self-esteem, alienation and greater dependence on others for daily living.

The federal government got involved and created laws to fix this problem — kinda. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandates free, appropriate public education (including physical education) in the least restrictive environment. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 says no individual shall be excluded because of a disability in programs that receive federal funds. Schools are required to modify programs or activities according to the abilities of each child. Moreover, students with disabilities have the right to compete on interscholastic teams.

These well-intended laws are only part of the solution. In the past, the school districts in the San Diego area where I live used myriad excuses to exempt themselves from federal and local statutes that protected the rights for all children to access sports programs.

For this reason, I joined a few like-minded friends and created a nonprofit organization that acted as an off-campus after-school sports program for children in wheelchairs. Since the kids couldn’t participate at school, we created opportunities elsewhere. Gyms, basketball courts and athletic fields operated by the city’s park and recreation department were the best solution. Surprisingly, the city became the perfect accomplice to fix the problem, and it wasn’t long before we had more than 300 junior athletes on our rosters.  

All children benefit from physical activity, and those using wheelchairs are no exception. Participation of children with disabilities in sports and physical activity programs promotes physical, emotional and social well-being. Additionally, children with disabilities achieve higher rates of academic success and are more likely to graduate from high school and matriculate in college. Competing in adaptive sports is where skills like teamwork, goal-setting and other achievement-oriented behaviors necessary for success in the workplace are developed.

Law or no law, these kids need adults to help them figure stuff out. So, let’s make an effort to be positive role models for the next generation of athletes. Please consider being a mentor. We need to make sure they have more opportunities than the generation before them.

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