All children should have an opportunity to be exposed to sports, however; many children with disabilities are often not afforded this experience. When questioning youth sport organizers about including children with disabilities, the typical reactions are they are a liability; what if they get hurt; they cannot keep up; the equipment they use to move is dangerous to other children; and we can’t change the rules for just one child.
When questioning parents of children with disabilities as to why their child does not participate in the community soccer program we hear it is way too dangerous; he/she cannot keep up; and coaches are unwilling to modify the game to include my child.
I introduced you to Noah in my first post. In this story, he is five-years-old and walks independently with braces on both legs but falls consistently. His left arm does not do much work and if he falls to the left, he has difficulty catching himself.
As his physical therapist, I suggested to his mother that he get involved in community activities and interact with his peers for both socialization and for physical activity that would help improve his daily functioning. As expected, she responded with a panic stricken look and gasped in disbelief. Just like the other parents, she said just about every answer given above as to why a child with special needs doesn’t participate in a sport. But, after much discussion and reassurance (and begging from Noah), she pensively signed him up for a local youth soccer league. I promised her that I would also attend the first practice to make sure the coaches were aware of Noah’s “abilities”.
Noah’s coaches were two college students volunteering their time to the local organization. They knew very little about kids but a lot about soccer which was to Noah’s advantage! I spoke to them about Noah and cerebral palsy and shared that no adaptations were needed while he played. Sure, he is slower than other children and he wears braces. Yes, he runs funny but he knows as much about soccer as the other children, which would be nothing! They were all in the same boat in learning how to play so no child was better than the other, which helped Noah. The coaches thought maybe he would make a great goalie, but I explained to them that he would probably not do well at that position because of his compromised vision and slow reactions. However, his chances of getting hurt were no greater than that of his peers, actually less since he moved slower, so a position on the field would be perfectly fine.
As Noah grows into adolescence, he may need to find another sport as reality predicts that the things that make him “differently abled” at 5-years-old (lack of speed, strength, agility, coordination) will become more emphasized as he and his peers mature. For now though, Noah is just another youth soccer player, who is a part of a team, learning new skills, developing friendships, making his parents proud, and like most of the children in the league, has no idea of wins and losses and will be awarded a medal …for trying.
*Noah is a fictional name to protect the real child.
About the Author: Deborah Thorpe, PT, PhD, has been a pediatric physical therapist, academician and researcher for 25 years. Her research focuses on fitness, physical activity, and health promotion for persons with cerebral palsy (CP) across the lifecourse.