Finding Fitness Options for Disabled Youth
Think back to your childhood for a moment. Were you ever picked last when sides were chosen at recess? Were you ever made fun of for your lack of athleticism? Did you ever not make the team? Chances are that you have been “left out” at least once and, if you have, then you remember how awful it feels. For many children with disabilities, however, feeling “left out” is a way of life. And though they may have certain limitations, the capacity to feel is not one of them, and being singled out for being “different” hurts just as much for these children as it does for their able bodied peers.
San Antonio has many programs and facilities that address this issue by offering children with special needs a chance to participate in group and individualized sports, or simply get a good workout at a local gym. The benefits to their physical health are great, but greater still are the benefits to their confidence and self esteem.
Samuel Stangle was just 18 months old when he was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy. In kindergarten, while the other kids were running around at recess, he sat in the dirt and played alone, because the playground was not wheelchair accessible. His mother, Jennifer, recalls explaining to her avid football fan that he would not be able to participate in his favorite sport—a concept that Samuel had difficulty understanding.
“He has always wanted to be part of a team and to be involved with his peers,” says Jennifer. “We thought he would never have that opportunity.”
Fast forward to today where Samuel, who is now 14-years-old and a freshman at Clark High School, is a member of both the Junior Varsity tennis team and the track and field team.
“He is doing things we never thought he would get to do,” says Jennifer happily.
“He has friends and teammates that now know him and watch out for him. It has removed the stigma for him of being ‘different.’”
Part of Samuel’s involvement in team sports stemmed from his participation in Kinetic Kids, an organization co-founded by pediatric physical therapist Tracey Fontenot in 2001.
“I realized at that time that there were no options for exercise in a social environment for these kids,” Tracey said of her reason for founding the organization that serves children ages 18 months to 18 years. “We wanted to carry on with the physical therapy aspect, but also provide them with the social aspect and the inclusion.”
Kinetic Kids began with only a wheelchair baseball team, but has since expanded to include basketball, cheerleading, dance, golf, gymnastics, swimming, soccer, and football. Children are separated into divisions based on disability, and classes are tailored accordingly.
“These kids can play sports just like any other kids,” says Tracey. “They just have to have modifications and adjustments.”
Designed for disabled individuals of all ages, The South Texas Regional Adaptive and Paralympic Sports (STRAPS) has been in existence for three years, and offers adaptive recreational and competitive sports for athletes with physical (not developmental) disabilities.
Wheelchair soccer, football and softball are available for children of all ages, while the junior wheelchair basketball is designed for junior high and high school students who wish to compete. A power soccer program is in place for those in electric wheelchairs, and a sport called “goal ball” is offered to the visually impaired.
“It’s similar to soccer except the ball has a bell in it and you roll it,” describes Wendy Gumbert, STRAPS sports coordinator.
All of the STRAPS practices are held at Morgan’s Wonderland and competitions are statewide.
“When we started, there were plenty of programs that focused on adapted sports for military, or our wounded service members, but not really any that were open to all community members,” says Wendy. “STRAPS filled that void.”
Disabled kids who prefer individual over group sports have a unique opportunity in tennis because not only can they compete one-on-one, they can compete with the able bodied.
“You can’t really put a person in a wheelchair in a group sport like basketball with able bodied teammates,” says Rick Byrd, wheelchair tennis instructor at the Barshop Jewish Community Center. “Wheelchair tennis is an integrated sport in that you can play doubles with an able bodied partner, or play against an able bodied opponent.”
Rick who has been in a wheelchair since 1997 due to a rare bone disease, understands firsthand the need for those with physical disabilities to be able to participate in sports.
“People in chairs are conscious of the fact that we are ‘different,’” he says. “Participating in a sport creates inclusivity and builds a confidence that extends beyond the playing field.”
Hitting the Gym
Not every child wants to play sports, disabled or not. But that doesn’t mean they should lead a sedentary lifestyle. Childhood obesity is a big problem in this country, and what people don’t often realize is that children with physical disabilities are at an even greater risk due to their limited mobility.
Gyms like the Tri-Point YMCA offer options for disabled members that range from anti-gravity treadmills to a series of wheelchair accessible weight machines, and personal trainers who are qualified to work with this population. By offering the right tools and supervision, facilities like Tri-Point make it easier for those with physical limitations to stay as healthy as possible.
“I had one client who was primarily wheelchair bound, but she was able to walk on our anti-gravity treadmill,” says Chris Ortiz, personal trainer at Tri-Point YMCA. “That was a great moment.”
Chris has worked with several disabled youths through the “Get Fit Texas” program. Although implemented by the Epilepsy Foundation, the program provides a 12-week health and wellness program to individuals with a variety of special needs. Through the program, Chris addressed things like range of motion, and maximizing the individual’s ability to move as much as possible. He also addressed an even bigger issue for anyone who is starting an exercise regimen—motivation.
“Imagine how hard it is for an able bodied person to stay engaged in exercise, and then imagine that for someone whose mobility is limited,” he says.
To help with that, Chris looks for the “carrots,” or the things that make these young people want to succeed. Whether it’s the desire to participate in a sport, the desire to improve their existing performance, the desire to stay healthy, or simply the desire for inclusion, everyone has something that motivates them, and Chris offers positive encouragement along the way.
“Everyone has limitations,” he says. “All you can do is work as hard as you can to maximize your body’s complete health and be proud of what you can do every day.”
Bonny Osterhage is a San Antonio freelance writer and mother of two boys.