By Guest Blogger Dr. Darla Clayton, Founder, Strong as Steel Adaptive Sports; at Disability*Blog
Finding sports opportunities for kids with disabilities is not always as simple as going down to the local soccer club during the first week of March for sign-ups. Many families are not located near an existing adaptive sports team. However, this certainly doesn’t make our kids less interested in sports – or less in need of physical fitness opportunities! Hopefully including children with disabilities in sports will soon get even easier, thanks to new guidance from the U.S. Department of Education that clarifies that school districts are legally obligated to provide equal access to extracurricular athletic activities to students with disabilities.
When my son first expressed an interest in track and field, he was 7-years-old. There were no local groups that already existed, but we had some friends who had attended regional and national adaptive track events, so we sought out their advice and expertise.
Below I outline the steps we took that lead to our son attending the National Junior Disability Championships (NJDC) in 2011 as an independent athlete, and eventually lead our family to embark on starting a local team for kids with disabilities in the Western Pennsylvania area, Strong as Steel Adaptive Sports.
Look for the club that’s closest to you. For able-bodied children, there are probably a dozen clubs within a 20-mile radius. You’ll need to be prepared for the fact that you might have to travel long distances for your child to be able to participate in a sport. You may also find that there is no club within several hours of you. Don’t let that discourage you! Your child can still participate as an independent athlete. USA Paralympics provides a comprehensive list of adaptive sports clubs across the country and is a great place to start your journey.
2. Regional Meets
You’ll need to find meets that are nearby and offer the events your child would like to participate in; not all meets offer all events, so do your research to make sure the event you’re interested in will be included at that meet. For instance, the regional meet we attend was the Ohio Wheelchair Games. Wheelchair and Ambulatory Sports, USA (WASUSA) offers a list of sanctioned regional events in locations around the country.
For our son’s first year, we had to learn before we could teach. You’ll need to learn the rules, as they may be different for adaptive sports compared with typical programs. WASUSA’s website has a lot of information about the different adaptive sports, including very detailed rulebooks.
For additional training options, contact local sports programs to determine if they would work with your child. My son practices and competes with a local, typical track team and a local archery team. He is not the star of either team, but they offer great opportunities to practice for his big events. If neither of these options appeals to you, you may be able to hire a private coach, or work with gym teachers or physical therapists.
4. Meet Registration Deadlines
This truly goes without saying; however, it’s more important to meet them for your child who has a disability. The number of qualifying meets for adaptive sport competitions is very limited and if you miss the deadline, you might have to wait a whole year for your child to get a chance to compete in anything. Most meets have strict paperwork deadlines, so fill out the proper forms and send your registration for your regional meets in a timely fashion.
If your child qualifies and you intend to go to the National Junior Disability Championships, make sure you send the paperwork in early to be sure your child gets in. Often the cost of a meet will nearly double if you are submitting your forms late, and no one wants to be stuck in that position. Some meets offer scholarships, so if the registration cost is a hardship for your family, there is no harm in asking the meet director if any financial aid is available.
If you don’t have a team or club you are attending a meet with, either ignore the “team” paperwork or write “N/A – independent athlete” on it. You may be asked who coaches your athlete on the forms – it’s fine to list yourself. Registering as a coach for a meet may be free, and if it is, I recommend you do so if you’re coaching your own child or your child’s coach won’t be attending the meet. However, for some meets, it can be quite costly and the expense for registering yourself as a coach likely won’t justify the benefits. Information such as heat sheets, times of events, etc., should be readily available to everyone, and you can always ask registered coaches who are generally very willing to be helpful to newbies!
5. Learn about Classification
The system by which participants are classified is different for each sport. You will attend your first regional meet unclassified, and they will classify you or your child before the competition. For some sports or disability types, documentation from doctors is required, so make sure to bring all the right paperwork.
Classification is usually done before the meet, so be sure to arrive in time to meet the classifiers and that your paperwork clearly states you or your child need to be classified. Typically, you will need to be reclassified at your first national event, so don’t get too attached to your class as it is possible that it could change. Once you’re classified at a national event, you usually don’t need to be classified again for a while.
If you add a new sport, you will need to be classified for that sport, too. For instance, my son hopes to shoot archery at NJDC in 2013. He has been classified for track and field (T37 and F37, respectively) but he will need to be classified for archery this year since this is a new sport for him. The best information about classes for each sport that I have found are on the WASUSA website under the rulebooks for each sport.
When you attend your first regional meet, meet new people, have fun, be inspired! Enjoy the events; they are about a lot more than sports! Adaptive sports have provided our son with fantastic opportunities to socialize with other kids who experience similar challenges to his and have been a great self-esteem builder for him!
7. Compete Against the Clock
Probably the hardest thing for me and my son to get used to was knowing that he is often racing against others who aren’t in his classification or age group. This happens because there usually aren’t enough participants for each individual class to compete only against one another. For example, there may not be enough U11 boys in the T37 classification to run a race against only each other. This holds true at both regional and national meets.
Frequently, my son is on the track and may be the only person in his age and class in that race. His finishing position in the heat doesn’t affect how he does in the event. For instance, if he’s the only kid his age registered at an event, he may come in dead last on the track but still win a gold medal. This is really hard for some kids to adjust to, but stressing that they are running against themselves, against their own personal best times, can help.
We always tell our son, “We don’t know who on the track might be in your age or class group, so run your best for every race, period!” and if he wins gold, but didn’t have any competition in his age/classification group, we do not tell him this. Gold is gold; we let him bask in the glory!
8. Find your Qualifying Score
Once you get your child’s scores/times from the regional meet, you can determine if he or she has qualified for NJDC by going to the WASUSA website and selecting your sport of interest. Once you have selected your sport, choose ”rulebook” from the options menu. Once the document opens, scroll down the page – near the end of the document you will find adult and junior qualifying score tables, organized by age, for all events.
9. Attending NJDC
Whether you are driving your wheelchair accessible van or flying, try to stay at the host hotel, they are a lot of fun! Do participate in the events; they are a blast and a great way to meet new people.
Siblings of the athletes often make friends they look forward to seeing year after year. We also make it a point to take day trips around the region on days when our son isn’t competing. It’s not a typical vacation, but I would encourage you to make the best of it.
10. Be on Time
It’s true that these meets should be fun for children, but they are still sporting events that need to be taken seriously. Nationals tend to be stricter about the rules than regionals, but at either type of event, if you’re late, your child may not be able to participate.
Have fun, enjoy the events, tell your child to do his or her best, and remember that it’s more about the experience than about winning or losing. Encourage kids to strive for personal bests rather than coming in first.
12. Ask a Lot of Questions
If you are confused, concerned, or just unsure of how to do something – such as how to fill out paperwork, whether or not they offer a children’s meal option at the banquet (I ask this question often), where to be when, etc. – just ask someone! Often, the names of meets and clubs can be confusing, many people might assume that the Ohio Wheelchair Games would not be open to an ambulatory athlete with a disability but if you ask, you will discover that they certainly are.
The people who have organized the meets are generally very nice and extremely helpful. Ask them your questions, and if they don’t know, they will direct you to someone who should be able to help you. As we prepared for our first year at NJDC, we relied heavily on a few online friends who had been before and they were extremely helpful! We asked them a lot of questions, and they were also an amazing support for us once we arrived at the event.
I hope this information is helpful for others interested in getting involved in a new adaptive sport. I have no doubt I have forgotten several details. If you notice anything I’ve neglected to mention, please feel free to comment in the “Leave a Reply” section below the post and share what you know.
For more information about Strong as Steel Adaptive Sports, or any help you need regarding how to start a team, how to get involved or anything else, drop me a line.
Answering to Mom, Mama and Mommy, Dr. Darla is also a coach and psychologist who earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She is a wife and a mother to two fantastic children, a 9-year-old son who has cerebral palsy and a 5-year-old daughter. Inspired by her son’s success competing in adaptive sports, and concerned by the lack of sport options available to him, she founded Strong as Steel Adaptive Sports in 2011 in order to provide sport specific training and opportunities for children ages 5 to 21 with physical disabilities and visual impairments. She is also a featured columnist for The Mobility Resource.
As posted at Disability.gov blog : http://usodep.blogs.govdelivery.com/2013/04/03/12-important-things-to-remember-about-adaptive-sports-for-children-with-disabilities/