Sport for the Disabled

Disabled people can benefit both physically and emotionally from taking part in sporting activity. International events such as the Paralympics have raised awareness about the capabilities of people with disabilities and an increasing range of activities is becoming available, including existing and specially designed sports, played at both competitive and non-competitive levels.

There are many different kinds and degrees of disability. In international competitive sports for the disabled, disabilities are categorized as paraplegia (disabilities caused by spinal cord injuries), amputation, loco-motor disorders, cerebral palsy, visual impairment, hearing impairment and learning disabilities. Each disability has its own restrictions, but also its own potential. For example, a person who is deaf may be prevented from taking part in a sport such as football, which requires good verbal communication, but she is, however, able to participate in a wide variety of other sports, from athletics to racket sports.

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Sporting activity has much to offer the disabled person, on physical, mental and social levels, provided that her special needs are met. Several types of sports for the disabled have developed; local authorities and associations for particular disabilities should be able to provide details of these.

Athletics is just one of the increasing number of sporting activities available for amputees and people with other disabilities. In athletics and other competitive sports, the focus is now on each competitor’s abilities rather than his disabilities.

BENEFITS OF PARTICIPATION

Regular exercise is particularly important for people with disabilities, who may find it more difficult than able-bodied people to remain active. Many sports for the disabled work on developing cardio-respiratory endurance, as well as muscle strength.

Some sporting activities concentrate on specific muscle groups, compensating for weakness or disability in other muscle groups. Weightlifting and archery, for example, can help to strengthen the arm muscles of a paraplegic person. Wheelchair sports, such as wheelchair basketball and athletics, help to improve coordination. Sports for blind and visually impaired people can enable them to develop a sense of orientation in space, and swimming can help those with multiple sclerosis to maintain muscle strength, thus helping them to retain mobility and independence.

Equally important, regular participation in recreational sports, such as athletics and racket sports, often boosts mood and self-esteem and eases social isolation by increasing opportunities to meet other disabled and able-bodied people. Some clubs offer integrated sports, in which disabled and able-bodied people participate together. Recent studies have discovered that this can be a positive experience for all those concerned.

SPECIAL NEEDS AND PRECAUTIONS

The sporting needs of disabled people include specialist coaching and assessment, accessible facilities, access to information about sports for the disabled and informed medical supervision.

Before taking up a new sport, it is important to discuss with a physiotherapist the suitability of the chosen activity and the need for any particular precautions. For example, people with Down’s syndrome, for whom injuries of the cervical spine can be potentially fatal – and people with a healed cervical spine fracture or fused cervical spine – are usually advised against taking part in contact sports such as rugby. People with paraplegia may be advised to use restraining straps during sporting activity to prevent them from falling from a wheelchair and being injured.

Provided that their special needs are met and any necessary precautions are taken, there are increasing opportunities for people with disabilities to be integrated into mainstream sports if they wish.

SPORTING OPTIONS

Sports for people with disabilities fall into three categories:

• Existing sports in which disabled people may participate with little or no modification; these include activities such as swimming, basketball, athletics, bowls, table tennis and archery.

• Existing sports that require adaptations -in tennis for the disabled, for example, the ball is allowed to bounce twice.

• New sports, devised specifically for people with disabilities. These include: boccia – a variant of bowls in which the ball is thrown overarm; the club – a sport for wheelchair users who score by throwing a club on to numbered squares in a grid marked out on the ground; goalball – a variant of football for blind people in which the ball contains a bell; and polybat – a variant of table tennis played without a net; the player uses a block and handle bat.

FINDING INFORMATION

Contact your local recreation department or community service organization for information on local sports clubs that cater for, or specialize in, sports for the disabled. Most countries have a national sports council which should be able to provide information on organizations, facilities and competitive events in your local area. Associations specializing in the different disabilities should also be able to give advice on a particular disability. The internet may also be a good source of information.

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