When the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation was working on developing a focus for its Disability Inclusion Initiative some years ago, it consulted with consumers and agencies in Boston about gaps in services and where private dollars could make a difference. One theme that emerged was that there was a need to expand opportunities for persons with disabilities to participate in sports and recreation.
With so many other basic needs of persons with disabilities going unmet, one might ask why participation in sports should matter. A 2009 study done by the Harris Poll for Disabled Sports USA provides food for thought. It showed that, compared with other adults in the US population, adults participating in its programs were:
- More likely to be employed
- More likely to be leading a healthy lifestyle
- More sociable
- More likely to feel as though they were leading fulfilling lives, and
- More likely to be looking forward to the rest of their lives
Maureen McKinnon and Jonathan Derr are cases in point. In 1995, Maureen fell 13 feet from a sea wall and ended up paralyzed from the waist down. A casual sailor before her injury, it was five years before she was inspired by a mentor to try sailing again. He told her, “Once a sailor, always a sailor.” The message was to use the abilities she had. Maureen became involved in competitive sailing and found that it completely transformed her life. She followed an unexpected path that led her to compete across the world in the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games. She was the first woman to represent the United States in sailing and she won the Gold Medal.
Jon Derr started competing in Special Olympics when he was 7 years old. He liked all kinds of sports but Special Olympics gave him a place to be a winner. For a period of time when he was a teenager, Jon struggled with his identity as a person with a disability and was a little less active in Special Olympics. He chose instead to play on his high school’s golf team and to manage the boys’ basketball and lacrosse teams. However, Special Olympics drew him back when they gave him the opportunity to play golf in their international competition. He placed third in the world. Subsequently, he was also inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
Both Maureen and Jon continue to be active in a variety of sports and cite the fitness benefits of their participation. Maureen reports that she can use parts of her body now that she once considered paralyzed. Jon says that his involvement keeps him in the gym and working out. But the benefits have been much more than just physical. Both Maureen and Jon speak of the wonderful friends they have made and the fun they have had. There have been other things too, like learning new skills (for Maureen, fundraising; for Jon, public speaking) and assuming leadership roles in the broader community that inspire individuals and transform attitudes.
In the Boston community, and likely in other places as well, there has been a real growth in the number and kinds of sport and recreation activities for persons with disabilities. Yet there is so much more that is needed.
Here are a few suggestions for efforts that would advance the cause:
- Improve communications about and outreach for existing opportunities
- Develop new and/or expanded programs where needed
- Develop more inclusive family activities that benefit all family members
- Promote more universal design of programs serving all populations
- Recognize the individual and societal benefits of physical activity in terms of overall health, community engagement and happiness, and set goals accordingly
- Work to change attitudes about abilities and expectations, focusing on ability not disability
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities argues, “The unique ability of sports to transcend linguistic, cultural and social barriers makes it an excellent platform for strategies of inclusion and adaptation.” Let’s recognize the tremendous benefits of participation in sports and heed the advice of the UN Convention to use sports as a strategy for inclusion. The time is ripe for progress.
Jean Whitney is the former Executive Director of the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation. She enjoys running, hiking, swimming and cross-country skiing.